Court sidesteps key 'rights' issue

The Supreme Court sidestepped what up to now had shaped up to be a key civil rights case on reverse discrimination. It refused to decide whether Boston had the right to lay off veteran police and firefighters and retain blacks and Hispanics with less seniority.

Monitor legal correspondent Curtis J. Sitomer reports that in an unsigned opinion, the justices returned the case to a lower court, holding that the issue was moot, since the city had found additional funds to reinstate all those who were laid off. Earlier, the US Court of Appeals had upheld the affirmative-action decision. Boston police and fire unions had brought the case to the Supreme Court, not only in an effort to get the ruling reversed, but in a bid to recoup lost pay during the layoff period. The Supreme Court's action vacates the US Court of Appeals judgment and sends the case back to the lower court for similar action.

In other action, the justices:

* Agreed to take up a high-stakes dispute over Interior Secretary James Watt's controversial plan to sell oil and gas leases off the coast of California.

* Announced they would decide whether a law student who flunked Arizona's bar examination can use federal antitrust laws to sue the attorneys who graded the test for $1.2 million.

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