WASHINGTON — THE Supreme Court, in a pair of important civil rights decisions Monday, made it significantly harder for minorities and women to win lawsuits charging discrimination. The justices voted 5 to 4 to allow a group of white firefighters in Alabama to challenge in court an affirmative action plan for minorities on the grounds that it discriminated against whites.
The ruling, written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, may open the way to legal challenges to hundreds of court-approved plans across the country calling for specific hiring or promotion goals for minorities and women.
Writing in dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens warned that ``just as white employees in the past were innocent beneficiaries of illegal discriminatory practices, so it is inevitable that some of the same white employees will be innocent victims who must share some of the burdens resulting from the redress of the past wrongs.'' He also noted the possibility of a ``never-ending stream of litigation.''
In the second case, the court voted 5 to 3 to make it harder for workers to sue for civil rights violations by ruling that the suits must be brought when a possibly discriminatory work policy takes effect, not when the worker is affected.
In other action, the court:
Ruled that a jury choosing between the death penalty and a life prison term for a convicted murderer generally may not be told about the victim's personal characteristics. By a 5-to-4 vote, the justices ruled that a South Carolina murderer was unfairly sentenced to death after a prosecutor told jurors that the victim was a religious, community-minded person.
Turned down an appeal by companies involved in treating hazardous waste aimed at forcing the government to adopt tougher environmental rules.