A federal judge yesterday described questions asked by a federal government attorney in a racial discrimination suit as an "outrageous, needless invasion of privacy" and said they do not have to be answered.
The questions, in written form to proposed members of a class action involving black porfessional employees at the Federal Trade Commission, included such queries as: "Are you the parent of a child born out of wedlock?" and whether past marriages had been "ceremonial or common-law."
In addition, the questions concerned past treatment of mental illnesses or alcoholism, past criminal record, the location of the answerer's income tax filings for the last five years, and a request to list any "organization of any nature" to which the person had belonged during the last 10 years.
U.S. District Judge Charles R. Richey said the questions did not have to be answered, and that they "reveal on their face a calculated effort to harass and discourage class members."
Richey said the "outrageous and needless invasion of privacy" was "all the more disturbing because it is proposed by a representative of the U.S. government."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert M. Werdig, of the civil division, who is defending the Federal Trade Commission, said the questions were part of an effort to determine whether all the proposed class members were actually eligible to become plaintiffs in the suit.
"The government is not attempting to embarrass people," Werdig said, adding that he might have reconsidered asking the individual questions cited by Richey if the attorneys for the plaintiff had approached him directly instead of filing a broad objection with the court.
U.S. Attorney Earl J. Silbert and other officials of the prosecutor's office said the questions are among those suggested in a handbook issued by the Justice Department to be asked in any civil case handled by the agency.
Silbert said he had been unaware of the nature of the questions until he was asked yesterday about their use in the case, and will review the situation to see if the questions are the kind generally asked and whether they are necessary in racial bias cases.
The suit in which the questions were asked involves a black attorney at the FTC who contends that he has been denied a promotion to the GS-15 level because of his race.
Judge Richey has tentatively ruled that the suit can be pressed as a class action on behalf of about 100 black professionals at the FTC, and the questions propounded by the government were to be sent to the persons who fell into that category.
Attorneys for the plaintiff filed an objection to the questions on several points, including the claim that they were irrelevant.
In ruling for the plaintiff, Richey said the filing of the questions amounted to "egregious conduct on the government's part."