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Justice Official Applauds Court's 1983-84 Rulings

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Washington--Shortly before the U.S. Supreme Court began its 1984-85 term, the Reagan Administration's top civil-rights official applauded the term that ended last July, saying that "the rights of individuals regained the constitutional recognition they once enjoyed, and group entitlements were effectively relegated to the sidelines where they belong."

In a Sept. 26 speech here, William Bradford Reynolds, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, said that recent Supreme Court decisions regarding affirmative-action plans signal that the Court "has returned to the judicial function of interpreting our laws, not striving to remake them, [and] of preserving fundamental values that exist, not trying to reshape them."

In the field of civil rights, Mr. Reynolds said at a legal forum sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, "few debates are more heated than the one that is currently raging over individual versus group rights."

Minorities of One

"On one side are those who endorse as a constitutional imperative the rights of the individual, who re-gard each individual as unique--a minority of one--to be judged on the basis of his or her ability, talent, and personal worth," he said. "On the other side are those ... who believe that society's benefits should be distributed among various groups on some 'rough equivalency' basis that translates most often into proportionality.

"Group preferences, regrettably, tend to breed only conflict and factionalism within society," he continued. "This race- and gender-conscious approach to the allocation of social benefits has too often led to bitterness and disharmony, not acceptance and harmony."

Shared Vision

The Congress, Mr. Reynolds said, shared this view when it enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964. "Far from seeking to create throughout America pockets of preference defined by race, sex, religion, or national origin, Hubert Humphrey, a central proponent of the original civil-rights bill, assured his colleagues time and again that group-oriented preferences were not to be tolerated," he said.

The Court, he added, also recog-nized this view when it handed down its decision last July in Firefighters Local Union v. Stotts. In that case, the Court held that lower federal courts could not order the layoff of white workers protected by bona fide seniority systems in order to preserve the jobs of recently hired minority workers.

However, Mr. Reynolds said, in the Stotts decision "the Court said much more, and in unmistakably forceful terms."

The Justices, he continued, "grounded the decision, at bottom," on the premise that "goals, quotas, or other preferential techniques ... cannot be a part of relief ordered in a court case, whether the context is hiring, promotion, or layoffs."

Mr. Reynolds added that "it matters not any longer--as some lower courts have suggested--that the justification for wanting to compromise [the principle that individual rights are supreme] is bottomed on an 'operational needs' rationale."

"The simple fact is that no conglomerate interest that is served by a classification on account of race, sex, or any other immutable characteristic, can be allowed to override or undercut the most fundamental of all personal rights: equal opportunity," he said.--tm

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