Ruling May Clarify Affirmative Action

Hiring vs. Firing

When it comes to reverse discrimination, hiring is not as important as firing.

That may be the implication of one of the US Supreme Court's more important affirmative-action cases of the year.

The high court yesterday turned away without comment the argument of a white college professor, Yvette Farmer, that she was discriminated against when the University of Nevada, Reno, hired a black sociology professor before her.

On the surface, the ruling may seem a surprise, as the Supreme Court in recent years has looked critically at such affirmative-action programs. But experts point out that, in general, justices have looked more askance at actions that entail workers actually losing a job due to their race, as opposed to not being hired in the first place.

High-court justices may have decided that that time wasn't ripe for a sweeping affirmative-action ruling. They "may want to let it percolate in lower courts for awhile," says Ronald Rotunda, a University of Illinois law professor.

The case of Farmer v. University and Community College System of Nevada had all the elements that have made for explosive national debate about the virtues of racial preference in the employment market.

Ms. Farmer interviewed for a job as an assistant professor of sociology in Reno in 1990. She lost out, as the position went to Johnson Makoba, a Ugandan emigrant who was then still just short of completing his PhD.

Farmer was hired a year later, but soon discovered she was earning $10,000 less than her colleague. Pressing her department chairman for an explanation, she was told bluntly that "He's black and you're not," Farmer later charged.

She filed suit in 1993. Earlier this year, by a 3-to-2 vote, the Nevada Supreme Court threw out her challenge. The university "has a compelling interest in fostering a culturally and ethnically diverse faculty," the court wrote.

The Farmer case echoes the Piscataway, N.J., case last year, in which a white teacher claimed she had lost her job due to race. The Piscataway case was expected to be an opportunity for the court to make a defining statement on affirmative action in employment. But civil rights leaders paid the teacher $433,500 to settle, setting up the Farmer case as a test of racial preference. Farmer v. University did not result in the broad ruling some experts expected. The next case that could result in a pivotal decision on affirmative action is a class-action suit challenging the use of racial preference in the University of Michigan's admissions policies.

New Decisions: From Hiring To Holiday Displays

More affirmative action

Dade County, Fla., cannot revive its program to award some construction contracts to black-owned companies. The county had argued that discrimination in the construction industry is severe enough to justify a remedy.

The University of Nevada, Reno, did not violate federal law when it hired a black sociology professor over a white applicant. The court did not use the case to clarify what efforts are legal to improve workplace diversity.

You can't sue city hall

A Massachusetts woman cannot sue local government, even if officials in the town of Fall River violated her free-speech rights. Yesterday's ruling exempts the town from liability. A ruling last week granted local officials immunity from civil-rights lawsuits.

Keep decking the halls

Syracuse, N.Y., may continue to sponsor a Christmas display of the Nativity at a public park. The ruling reinforces previous decisions that allow crche displays when they are part of larger holiday decorations.

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