Court Asks Administration Stand on N.J. Teacher-Layoff Case

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The U.S. Supreme Court put the Clinton administration on the spot last week by asking for its views in the much-debated case of a New Jersey school board that weighed race in a teacher-layoff decision.

The justices have not yet decided whether they will review the case involving the Piscataway, N.J., board's decision to lay off a white teacher over an equally qualified black teacher in the name of racial diversity.

But the court's order "means to me that they are seriously considering it," said David B. Rubin, the school board's lawyer.

The court asked the U.S. solicitor general to comment on the board's appeal of two lower federal court rulings that found that the 1989 decision to lay off the white teacher violated federal anti-discrimination law.

The case gained wide attention in part because the Department of Justice, which filed the original lawsuit on behalf of the white teacher, later reversed its position while the case was on appeal.

A Flip-Flop

The case of Board of Education of the Township of Piscataway v. Taxman (Case No. 96-679) involves the board's decision to lay off Sharon Taxman, a business teacher at Piscataway High School, instead of Debra Williams.

The board said it had to eliminate one position in the business department because of a dip in enrollment. Faced with a tie between the two teachers with largely similar qualifications and equal lengths of service, the board chose to keep Ms. Williams. She was the only black teacher in the 10-member business department.

The Justice Department under President Bush took up the white teacher's case, arguing that her layoff solely on the basis of race was a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A federal district judge agreed in a 1993 ruling.

The case sparked debate in 1994 when, under the Clinton administration and a new Justice Department civil rights chief, the government switched positions while the case was on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit. The department sought to defend race-based employment decisions that were designed to promote diversity. ("Justice Dept. Flips Stand on Affirmative-Action Case," Sept. 14, 1994.)

The 3rd Circuit court ruled 8-4 last August that the board's decision violated Title VII, which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, sex and several other factors. Ms. Taxman was rehired by the Piscataway district in 1992.

The case could cause further internal debate in the Clinton administration over affirmative action, legal experts speculated. Deval L. Patrick, the assistant attorney general for civil rights who ordered the administration's change of position when the case was before the 3rd Circuit, left the Justice Department this month.

Department officials said last week that the brief would speak for itself. They would not comment further.

Other Action

In separate action last week, the court:

  • Rejected an appeal from an Indiana man who was removed from a list of substitute teachers by the South Bend school district after bringing a Bible to class, reading it silently, and sometimes discussing religion with students.

Peter S. Helland argued unsuccessfully in lower courts that his "Christian style of teaching" was protected by the U.S. Constitution. The case was Helland v. South Bend Community School Corp. (No. 96-773).

  • Rejected an appeal from the parents of a 14-year-old deaf student who objected to two Florida districts' decision to bus the girl daily to a school for deaf children more than 50 miles from her home rather than educate her at a neighborhood school. Lower courts said the family failed to exhaust administrative remedies. The case was N.B. v. Alachua County School Board (No. 96-772).

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