High Court Refuses To Review Detroit Reverse-Bias Lawsuit

By Tom Mirga — January 25, 1984 4 min read

Washington--The U.S. Supreme Court, in a setback for the Reagan Administration, announced last week that it will not review a controversial “reverse-discrimination” lawsuit involving the Detroit Police Department.

Without comment, the Justices let stand lower-court rulings upholding the police department’s voluntary practice of promoting equal numbers of black and white sergeants to lieutenant. The practice has been planned to continue until 1990, when the proportion of black lieutenants is expected to reflect the proportion of blacks residing in the city. The suit, Bratton v. City of Detroit (Case No. 83-551), was filed in November 1975 by five white sergeants who claimed the department passed them over for promotion in favor of less-qualified black applicants.

Educators have been closely watching the Bratton case and others like it because their outcomes could affect the legal standing of affirmative-action plans for teachers and other school personnel.

The Justices heard oral arguments in a similar reverse-discrimination case, Stotts v. Memphis Fire Department (No. 82-229), early last month. (See Education Week, Dec. 14, 1983.) A decision in that case, in which the Court has been asked to rule on the legality of layoff policies that seek to preserve racial balance, is expected by late spring or early summer.

Last month, the Justice Department filed a brief with the Court in the Bratton case, saying it had “profound doubts” whether the Constitution allows governments to adopt racial quotas to remedy past discrimination in hiring, particularly when those quotas supersede long-established merit-promotion systems.

Furthermore, the department said it doubts that the Constitution protects remedial actions that benefit people who are not the actual victims of discrimination, but only members of a class that historically has been discriminated against.

“This case presents an appropriate occasion for the Court to attempt to reach some consensus on the proper approach to cases involving the adoption by the government of quotas for employment,” Solicitor General Rex E. Lee unsuccessfully argued in the Administration’s brief.

Other Action

In other action last week, the Court refused to review a lower-court decision that could result in salary adjustments for a mathematics instructor at a Texas junior college.

The suit, Laredo Junior College v. Perez (No. 83-701), was filed by the instructor in January 1982 because college officials had refused to grant him additional compensation after he obtained a doctoral degree in educational administration.

According to papers filed with the Court, the college’s pay policies reward instructors with salary increases if they earn degrees in their teaching field. The college said that because Mr. Perez’s degree was not in mathematics, he was not entitled to a raise. Mr. Perez, however, contended that college officials routinely made exceptions to the policy.

The federal district judge hearing the case ruled in favor of the college, saying that Mr. Perez filed his suit more than a year after the state statute of limitations on his claim had expired.

Court Reversed Decision

But on appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed that decision. The court said that because other faculty members have been compensated for doctoral degrees outside their teaching areas, Mr. Perez has been the victim of a continuing denial of equal protection and the statute of limitations does not apply.

The case now returns to the federal district court for a rehearing based on the appeals court’s decision.

Also last week, the Court heard oral arguments in a case that calls into question at-large elections in areas with concentrated minority populations.

The lawsuit, Escambia County, Fla. v. McMillan (No. 82-1295), was filed in 1977 as a class action on behalf of blacks in the county who claimed that the county’s at-large election scheme improperly diluted their votes and thus violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Last month, the Justices upheld a federal appeals court’s decision that at-large elections for the school board in Mobile County, Ala., violated the civil rights of black residents. (See Education Week, Dec. 14, 1983.)

Escambia County voters elect their five-member board of commissioners on an at-large basis. Under this system, candidates run for numbered places corresponding to the areas where they live, but each must be elected by voters of the entire county.

Although blacks make up 17 percent of the registered voters in the county, none of the four blacks who have run for the county commission has been elected.

Federal district and appeals courts have rejected the at-large voting system and ordered the county to establish a ward system for electing its commissioners. The Escambia County Commission appealed these decisions to the Justices, maintaining that it instituted the at-large election scheme for reasons of “good government,” not racial discrimination.

The Court is expected to reach a decision in the case by late spring.

A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 1984 edition of Education Week as High Court Refuses To Review Detroit Reverse-Bias Lawsuit