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The Clinton Administration's Changing Positions on Piscataway

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The legal dispute over the Piscataway, N.J., school board's decision to lay off a white teacher instead of her black colleague to maintain racial diversity has raised thorny issues for the Clinton administration. The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear the case during the court term starting in October.

  • In 1994, the administration sided with Piscataway officials. A brief signed by then-Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Deval L. Patrick, who left the department this year, and other department lawyers, said:
"In our view, the [Piscataway school] board's interest in racial diversity is permissible ... when deciding between two teachers who were found to be equal in seniority, qualifications and performance. ... 'Faculty diversity' is an appropriate justification for affirmative action under Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964]. ... The race-conscious action taken by the board in these circumstances does not unnecessarily trammel the interests of nonminority employees.''
  • After Mr. Patrick's departure from the Justice Department, the administration reversed its position. In a brief filed with the Supreme Court on Aug. 22, the department called the board's action a violation of Title VII:
The school board "seeks to justify its layoff decision on a single ground: that retaining a minority faculty member rather than [the white teacher] was necessary to promote diversity in the business education department of the Piscataway High School. A simple desire to promote diversity for its own sake, however, is not a permissible basis for taking race into account under Title VII. ... [The] layoff decision therefore unnecessarily trammelled [the white teacher's] interests in violation of Title VII ... .''

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