Latest high court rulings mark out new paths of justice

With landmark decisions on affirmative action and criminal rights, the United States Supreme Court is clearly marking a new path of justice which could well guide legal procedures for years to come.

This direction became clearer this week with rulings that sharply limited reverse bias as an antidiscrimination remedy in the area of public jobs and modified the rights of the accused where public safety and ''inevitable discovery'' of controversial evidence are involved.

The court's philosophy is a clear departure from its more liberal direction of the 1960s. In this week's decisions, it spelled out that (1) discrimination is not a remedy for discrimination, even to atone for past ills; (2) criminal procedures must not be hampered by excessive technical procedures, especially when basic individual rights are preserved.

High-court rulings Monday and Tuesday clearly pleased the Reagan administration, which has staunchly backed ''last-hired, first-fired'' employment procedures and opposed special preferences for women and minorities which abandon this principle.

The administration, which has long lobbied for modification of the so-called exclusionary rule (where criminal evidence is suppressed when improperly gathered by the police), is also responding favorably to what is being referred to as a ''chipping away'' of this 70-year-old procedure by the court in two decisions this week.

Meanwhile, civil rights activists and feminists are calling the court's 6-to- 3 ruling Tuesday in a case concerning Memphis firefighters a significant blow to progress made during several decades of affirmative action.

The court said job-seniority plans may not be scrapped, even during hard times, to give minorities - among them women and blacks - special preference to make up for past discrimination. In the Memphis case, the local firefighters union, joined by the Justice Department, argued that innocent white workers were being discriminated against by the fire department's affirmative-action program to insulate blacks from layoffs and demotions. The court agreed, citing a violation of Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The case dates back a decade to when the Justice Department, under the Ford administration, filed suit against Memphis for alleged racial discrimination in the fire department. This resulted in Memphis's adoption of interim hiring goals. But a black fire captain, claiming denial of job promotions due to race, later filed a class-action suit on behalf of all blacks in the department.

In a 1980 consent decree, the city agreed to a hiring goal of 50 percent blacks and promised to promote at least 20 percent of qualified minorities into vacant positions.

An economic crisis a year later prompted widespread layoffs of public employees, including firefighters. Bolstered by two court decisions, however, blacks were at least partly protected from these firings.

Knocking down the affirmative-action principle in Tuesday's decision, the high court said that it was inappropriate ''to deny an innocent employee the benefits of his seniority in order to provide a remedy in a pattern or practice suit such as this.''

Writing for the court, Associate Justice Byron R. White said that ''there was no finding that any of the blacks protected from layoff had been a victim of discrimination.'' In a concurring opinion, Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said the Memphis case reflects ''the difficulties inherent in allocating the burdens of recession and fiscal austerity.''

Three dissenting justices, however, ruled the case moot, or no longer relevant, because the city's layoffs had since been rescinded. Last year, in a similar case involving Boston's policemen and firefighters - where jobs had later been restored as in Memphis - the high court declined to rule.

The Supreme Court has been divided in affirmative-action cases. In the recent past, it ruled that race may be a factor used by colleges in admissions policies. It has also affirmed that employers may voluntarily afford minorities special treatment in hiring.

In a pair of cases relating to the rights of criminal suspects, the high court, in effect, said that protection for the accused has to be weighed against protection for the public at large and against the integrity of the judicial system. On Tuesday, it ruled that policemen are not obligated to warn a suspect of rights in a situation ''prompted by a concern for public safety.'' This constitutes an exception to long-used Miranda warnings which mandate informing anyone taken into custody of their rights.

The decision reversed that of a New York appellate court that ruled inadmissible in court both a gun and a defendant's statement in a case where police had asked a fleeing suspect where he had hidden his weapon before reading him his rights.

This ruling came a day after the court gave the exclusionary rule its initial blow, deciding that improperly procurred evidence may be used in a criminal trial if a judge decides it inevitably would have been discovered anyway through legal procedures. The case involved a confession leading to the recovery of a body of a murdered child.

Related decisions speaking to a ''good faith'' exception to the exclusionary rule are expected to be handed down by the court later this month.

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