High court considers preferential treatment for blacks, women

The Supreme Court is considering whether affirmative action programs in California and Alabama legally help minorities and women gain promotions or if they excessively penalize the innocent. The two cases were heard by the justices Wednesday, with the Reagan administration lending its support to the argument that preferential treatment for minorities must be strictly controlled.

The administration's top courtroom lawyer, Solicitor General Charles Fried, argued against Alabama's court-ordered plan to promote equal numbers of black and white troopers, saying it was ``profoundly illegal.''

He said police officials already were taking steps to help blacks by proposing a promotion plan pegged to the blacks' 25 percent representation on the force.

But J. Richard Cohen of Montgomery, Ala., representing the black troopers, said the federal judge who ordered the one-for-one promotion plan sought to overcome ``a history of recalcitrance'' by the state police department.

The judge sought to end years of ``foot dragging,'' said Mr. Cohen, adding that Mr. Fried's statements defending the police department ``don't stand up under scrutiny.''

In this case, state police officials had been ordered by a federal judge in 1984 to promote eight black troopers and eight white troopers to corporal.

In the second case, the Santa Clara County Transportation Agency promoted a woman to dispatcher over a man deemed more qualified. Paul Johnson, a 57-year-old highway worker with 30 years experience, lost out in 1980 when Diane Joyce, a 42-year-old widow with four children, was promoted to dispatcher.

A federal appeals court upheld the move as a means of overcoming the absence of women in higher-ranking agency jobs, although there was no court finding that the agency discriminated against women.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor suggested, however, that employers, without admitting past bias, should be allowed to redress possible discrimination to head off lawsuits by women and minorities.

The court is expected to announce rulings by July in both cases, answering lingering questions over the future of affirmative action.

In key rulings during its 1985-86 term, the Supreme Court upheld a court-ordered racial quota for membership in a New York City area labor union found to have discriminated against minorities, and affirmed a court consent agreement to promote more minority firefighters in Cleveland.

The decisions did not resolve whether affirmative action plans may amount to unconstitutional reverse discrimination in other circumstances.

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