The Reagan administration's effort to scuttle minority quotas in public employee hiring and promotion seems headed for a knock-down, drag-out fight. Most of the 50 cities, states, and counties so far challenged by the administration to modify their court-ordered and negotiated affirmative- action plans are firmly on record as ready to resist.
Indianapolis, the first city formally to protest, was taken to court last week by the administration. City leaders are insisting on their right to, what Republican Mayor William H. Hudnut III calls, a ``higher standard of living'' than federal authorities now demand.
Carl Radford, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Indianapolis, admits that he had doubts that a conservative community in a state with a strong Republican political machine would oppose the move.
``It should have been the easiest one for the administration to conquer -- we're overjoyed that the city is standing on principle,'' he says.
Those in jurisdictions not yet challenged in court by the Justice Department say it has been a long and often bitter struggle to get a more representative mix of public employees. They have no desire now to discard the gains and reopen a tender issue, they say.
Jim Fellows, deputy city attorney in Omaha, Neb., where the Reagan administration would like to see a revised police department's affirmative-action program, says his city is ``perfectly content'' with the gains made under it so far. ``It wouldn't be judicious to make waves now.
``I can't envision that the Justice Department is going to get testy about this,'' says Mr. Fellows,``but if they do, we might very well take issue with it.''
In addition to such local resistance, the NAACP asked its supporters to protest administration policy by demonstrating today in front of the Justice Department in Washington. The NAACP last week filed suit against the department in an effort to bar it from further court action that could in the NAACP's view erode civil rights gains already made.
Congress may also fight the administration's move. House Judiciary chairman Peter Rodino (D) of New Jersey has inserted in a pending Justice Department authorization bill a measure to bar Justice from spending money to reopen cases where no positive appellate court ruling exists to encourage it.
Additionally the Justice Department is getting plenty of opposition advice from such organizations as the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (LCCRUL). The committee has urged the Administration to spend its resources on enforcement and avoid filing duplicative cases to make the same legal point.
``The Justice Department doesn't need to become the Hertz of litigation -- there are at least a dozen suitable vehicles for a Supreme Court ruling right now,'' says Richard Seymour, director of the group's employment discrimination project.
Mr. Seymour and many of the administration's other civil rights critics say the issue of hiring and promotion quotas will not be finally resolved until there is a high court ruling on that specific issue.
The administration argues that such quotas are already clearly illegal both under the constitution and under a 1974 Supreme Court decision in the Memphis case. The court upheld the seniority rights of white firefighters who faced layoffs under the city's affirmative-action plan whose seniority rights could not be ignored to keep new minority employees.
Mr. Seymour insists the Justice Department is following a course more ideological than legal in interpreting that case broadly and pursuing the quota issue. But Justice Department spokesman John Wilson says the Memphis opinion written by Justice Byron White includes an extensive discussion of what Congress envisioned in employment-related Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act. It is clear from a reading of it, he says, that quotas and preference systems were never intended.
The administration's recently announced decision not to pursue cases in regions covered by three circuit courts, which have ruled against a broad interpretation of the Memphis decision, is seen as a positive concession by civil rights leaders. But the Justice Department's John Wilson, who says it cuts out about one-third of the cases, insists it is a simple matter of legal necessity.
But in uncovered areas the Justice Department may appeal directly to a federal judge for a change in affirmative action plans even if local officials do not agree. It is the reason civil rights leaders in many of these jurisdictions are worried. Mr. Radford of the Indianapolis NAACP says: ``If the administration's argument is upheld, we're in for dark and difficult days as far as equal opportunity is concerned.''