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Bill Is Filed To Reverse Rights Rulings

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Washington--A bipartisan Congressional coalition last week introduced legislation aimed at countering a series of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions on civil-rights enforcement in employment.

The bill would restore previous interpretations of several civil-rights statutes, dating back to 1866, that were restricted or overturned by five of the Court's rulings last year.

The Bush Administration, which had been downplaying the need to override the Court's civil-rights opinions, countered the Congressional move by announcing that it would develop its own civil-rights bill to overturn some, but not all, of the controversial decisions.

The actions set the stage for a heated debate over the impact of the Court's decisions on civil-rights enforcement and the need for the federal government to restore laws struck down or reinterpreted by the Court's conservative majority.

Both the Congress and the White House apparently agree on the need to allow employees to seek damages for on-the-job discrimination. Last year, the Court ruled that existing law provides such protections only for job applicants who are discriminated against in hiring decisions.

They also apparently agree on the need to allow employees to challenge discriminatory employment practices, such as last-hired, first-fired layoff policies, after they are actually affected by the policies, rather than only when the practices are first adopted.

Opposition Expected

Justice Department officials did not respond to a request for comment on the proposed legislation.

Published reports indicate the Administration will oppose several other provisions of the measure unveiled last week. These include:

  • A provision that would require employers to bear the burden of proving that challenged practices are not discriminatory after complainants prove that the practices have a disparate impact on minorities.
  • A provision that would severely restrict challenges filed against consent decrees after they are approved by a federal court, provided that all affected groups were informed in advance of the terms of the settlement.
  • A provision that would reaffirm that discrimination, even when only a partial factor in employment decisions, is illegal and provides sufficent grounds for court challenges.

The Administration's positions on parts of the bill that would extend existing civil-rights protections for workers were not clear last week.

The bill would allow women and ethnic and religious minorities to seek the same damages currently available to members of racial minorities in cases of employment discrimination, and would broaden the definition of legal fees that victims of discrimination are entitled to recover.

In an apparent effort to increase the measure's chances of passage, sponsors decided to restrict it to employment matters, thus avoiding more controversial issues such as minority set-aside programs for government contractors.--ws

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