Judge Postpones Contempt Decision For E.D. and Labor
Washington--In a ruling on a longstanding court challenge to the adequacy of federal enforcement of civil-rights laws, a federal judge last week postponed a decision on whether to find the Departments of Education and Labor in contempt of court.
However, Judge John H. Pratt of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia said that the government agencies have violated "in many important respects" a court order requiring prompt investigation and resolution of civil-rights complaints against schools and colleges, and he left open the possibility of a contempt finding at a later date.
The judge's "findings of fact" came at the end of three days of hearings here on a motion filed last year by lawyers for the Women's Equity Action League (weal), the naacp Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the National Federation of the Blind.
Failure To Comply
The civil-rights advocacy groups contend that the Education Department's office for civil rights (ocr) and the Labor Department's office of federal contract compliance programs have failed to comply with the provisions of a 1977 court-ordered agreement--known as the Adams/weal order--that set timetables and procedures for the agencies' enforcement of laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, sex, and handicap in schools and colleges.
The order was intended to force prompt resolution of complaints and to reduce the agencies' backlogs.
It stems from what one government lawyer described as "the major case against the federal government for failure to enforce civil-rights laws." The case began with a 1970 class-action suit, Adams v. Richardson, charging that the then-Department of Health, Education and Welfare (hew) was inadequately enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or national origin in educational programs receiving federal support.
In 1974, weal filed a similar suit claiming that complaints against educational institutions filed under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a federal anti-sex discrimination law, and under Executive Order 11426, an anti-discrimination law affecting recipients of federal contracts, were not adequately processed.
Other plaintiffs have joined in the suits--whose histories are described as immensely complicated by both government and civil-rights officials--including groups concerned about the government's enforcement of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
The Adams and weal suits were first heard together by Judge Pratt in 1977.
In the hearings last week, officials of the Departments of Education and Labor acknowledged that they had not resolved complaints within the 120-day "timeframes" set by the Adams/weal order, which they said are unworkable, inflexible, and unrealistic.
The order provides 90 days for the government to investigate a complaint and issue a "letter of findings." If an educational institution is found to have discriminated, the order allows another 90 days for the institution and the government to negotiate the terms of compliance, followed by a 30-day period for enforcement proceedings to begin when a settlement has not been reached. Those proceedings can result in the termination of federal financial assistance to the school or college in question, or a suit against the institution.
Clarence Thomas, assistant secretary for civil rights in the Education Department, contended that the timetables hindered the department's ability to negotiate settle-Continued on Page 18
Contempt Ruling Postponed in Civil-Rights Case
Contempt Decision Postponed in Civil-Rights Case
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ments and argued that it was more important and more efficient to reach a voluntary settlement than to adhere strictly to the "timeframes.'' Government representatives testified that in recent years civil-rights complaints, especially those involving handicapped students, have become more difficult to resolve.
Education Department officials said in interviews last week that they believe that seeking voluntary compliance from schools reduces antagonism, is more likely to result in good faith efforts to correct problems, and is faster than forcing compliance.
"Once you have lawyers and hearings," said one official, "positions harden, there are months of delays, legal jockeying--all to terminate federal funds. How does that help the supposed beneficiaries?"
"The timeframes assume that all cases are the same," he said. "But a desegregation case involving a single school and desegregating an entire city school system are not the same."
Moreover, he added, "[Section] 504 cases are especially problematic'; they involve a great many new issues and special expertise. With a kid who is emotionally disturbed, for example, it involves psychological reports and determining what special services are to be provided and who pays for them."
"In the end," he said, "voluntary compliance is faster."
But in the hearings, lawyers for the civil-rights groups argued that the government was substituting its own philosophy for court-mandated action. They contended that the two federal agencies consistently violated the court order, that they displayed a "casual attitude" toward the deadlines, and that they did not provide sufficient evidence to substantiate their claims that the timetables do not work.
As a result, the lawyers said, numerous civil-rights complaints have not been resolved.
Elliot Lichtman, a lawyer for the Legal Defense Fund, pointed out that information from ed's office for civil rights shows that the department has failed to meet the timetables in 97 percent of its compliance reviews and more than half of its investigations of individual complaints.
At the close of the hearings, Judge Pratt said he was "reluctant to find the defendants [Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell, Mr. Thomas, and Ellen Shong, director of the Labor Department's office of contract compliance] in contempt," in part because the motion was filed shortly after the Reagan Administration officials took office.
But he added that he was "not at all convinced that these violations will be taken care of and eventually eliminated without the coercive power of the Court."
Judge Pratt gave the Education Department until June 1 to complete a study of its handling of civil-rights complaints that department officials say will show why ocr has not been able to meet the deadlines.
He ordered the parties to the suit to agree upon a new "consent order" by Aug. 15 that "will either reimpose the present guidelines, or make modification of these guidelines ... which would presumably take into account the change in the mix of cases, any increases in the complexity and difficulty of cases, and any related considerations."
If the parties are not able to agree by that date, he said, each side is to present its own order and "we will again get into the question of what coercion will be necessary to insure the compliance with this order."
Citing "the game of Musical Chairs that ... hew and now, apparently, the Department of Education is going through," and noting that the department may be dismantled, Judge Pratt said the new consent order should be signed by the cabinet secretaries and department heads who will "bear the burden of compliance."
Lawyers for the civil-rights groups said they were pleased by Judge Pratt's ruling.
"Even though it wasn't an immediate finding for contempt," said Joseph L. Rauh, another lawyer for the Legal Defense Fund, "I think it could be termed a victory for civil rights. The judge is holding contempt over the [government's] head. He knows they are violating his order and he is determined to stop that."
"We believe that Education and Labor are blatantly and unrepentantly violating their court-ordered responsibility to enforce the law," commented a lawyer at weal. "The court affirmed the violations and all in all it is a substantial success for us," she added.
Marcia D. Greenberger of the Women's Law Center, who represented the Women's Equity Action League at the hearing, said she was "encouraged by the strong language Judge Pratt used in discussing the goverment's enforcement efforts."
Toward the close of the hearing, she said, Judge Pratt characterized the attitude of current government officials toward civil-rights enforcement as "laissez-faire" and contrasted current efforts with those of officials under the Carter Administration.
"He expressed his concern that we had come full circle to the early 70's when the government only wanted voluntary compliance," she said.
But Education Department officials were also "mildly pleased," according to a spokesman in ocr "He didn't cite us for contempt and he gave us an opportunity to complete our study and propose more reasonable timeframes. But we're not overly ecstatic--he left the noose around our necks."