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High Court Poised To Closely Weigh Civil Rights Laws

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By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Supreme Court has an opportunity to reaffirm or reshape the nation's civil rights laws as it faces a rare confluence of cases over the next two weeks, including a high-profile challenge brought by white firefighters who claim they lost out on promotions because of the "color of their skin."

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The cases also touch on the Voting Rights Act, the need to provide English classes for immigrant children and, more tangentially, discriminatory mortgage lending.

The most emotionally charged case is from the New Haven, Conn., firefighters, whose complaints define the real-life quandary that sometimes accompanies government efforts to ensure racial equality.

The firefighters accuse city officials of violating civil rights laws and the Constitution by throwing out a promotions test on which they performed well but no blacks scored high enough to be eligible. The city responds that relying on test results with such wide racial discrepancies could have violated federal law and left them open to being sued by minorities.

The court will hear the arguments, along with the others, in the midst of an evolving national conversation about the role of race and diversity and in the wake of the historic presidential election.

"Each of these cases goes to the ability of our society to achieve opportunity, fairness and ultimately to our ability to be the democracy that we aspire to be," said John Payton, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "We've made tremendous progress as a society, and some of that progress is having in place anti-discriminatory" laws to ensure it continues.

His organization calls for the court in each case to affirm a vigorous role for government in recognizing the need for race-conscious vigilance.

But Edward Blum, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, envisions a chance for the court to acknowledge the strides that the country has made, even if it decides each case narrowly.

The court could "send a signal to government units that race and ethnicity should play a smaller and smaller part in their decisions," Blum said.

He said he thinks the court took the firefighter case "because it wants to make a statement. And of all the cases involving race and ethnicity, I think this is the easiest for the court to answer."

The justices are deeply divided about government policies involving race, even if Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has shown no such ambivalence. His view was evident quickly, when in a first-term dissent he lamented the "sordid business" of dividing individuals by race.

Others on the court seem just as firm, but on both sides of the issue. That often leaves Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, generally skeptical of race-based policies, as the target for opposing lawyers.


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