Civil rights reassessment. Court will look at key 1976 discrimination ruling; some fear weakened law may result. SUPREME COURT

A sharply split United States Supreme Court voted on Monday to reexamine a 1976 civil rights decision. Opponents of the move said it could result in weakened protection against racial discrimination. Five justices said they would reassess a key civil rights precedent that allows individuals to sue private citizens accused of racial bias. But the other four justices said the majority - by taking this stance - could undermine the trust minority groups have in the judicial system.

Using as its vehicle a case heard earlier this term but now held over for expanded rehearing next fall, the court will test whether Brenda Patterson, a black woman, may use a post-Civil War law to force her employer to pay damages for alleged racial harassment.

The Fourth US Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed her suit, claiming that the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was designed to ban racial bias only in hiring, firing, and job promotion.

Ms. Patterson may still charge harassment under a 1964 civil rights statute, but this law allows only back pay and not heavy damages for emotional and mental suffering.

The 1976 ruling, in Runyon v. McCrary, held that racially segregated private schools that refuse to admit black students violate the 122-year-old statute, which said that slaves freed after the Civil War were entitled to all the rights of citizenship. Opposed to rehearing the Patterson case were Associate Justices Harry Blackmun, William Brennan Jr., Thurgood Marshall, and John Paul Stevens.

Justice Stevens said that ``in addition to the impact of today's decision on the faith of victims of racial discrimination in a stable construction of civil rights laws, the order must also have a detrimental and enduring impact on the public's perception of the court as an impartial adjudicator.'' Justice Blackmun said he did not understand why the majority wanted to reconsider an interpretation of a civil rights statute that ``so clearly reflects our society's earnest commitment to ending racial discrimination....''

The majority said their action did not signal an intention to overturn the 1976 decision. ``It is surely no affront to settled jurisprudence to request argument on whether a particular precedent should be modified or overruled,'' stated Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justices Anthony Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, and Byron White.

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