ONE OF the first decisions that the Reagan administration faced upon entering office was whether to stand by the terms of a consent decree negotiated by the Carter administration with a group of plaintiffs claiming that the Professional Administrative Career examination (PACE) discriminated against Hispanic and black applicants for federal professional jobs. With most apponitive jobs in the involved agencies still unfilled, and with the government's right to call for renegotiation far from clear, the new administration hastily accepted the agreement with only minor modifications.

Many people--ourselves included--found the basic terms of the agreement unfair and inconsistent with the requirements of a merit-based, tenured Civil Service. The decree requires that agencies stop using the PACE exam and, for a period of three to five years, ensure that PACE jobs are filled with Hispanics, blacks and whites in roughly the same proportions as they apply for them--a quota system pure and simple. Other provisions allow hiring of Spanish-speaking applicants without regard to their relative scoring on exams if the job might arguable be "enhanced by having bilingual and/or bicultural skills"-- an open invitation for favoritism in local hiring decisions.

After the three-to-five-year period, proportional hiring would no longer be required outright. However, under current government guidelines, agency screening procedures would still be open to attack as discriminatory if passing rates for black, Hispanic and white applicants were not comparable. As a result, it is likely that agencies would resort, as some have already done, to subjective examination procedures emphasizing self-evaluation by applicants and, perhaps, brief observation of their performance on selected job tasks.

Although the agreement was tentatively approved late in February, the District Court has delayed final judgment--probably until after Labor Day--to allow plaintiffs to comment on the decree and both parties to prepare supporting documents. Now, however, the new acting general counsel of the Office of Personnel Management, Joseph Morris, has called upon the administration to reopen the issue before the decree becomes final. In a memorandum to OPM Director Donald Devine, Mr. Morris argues that the proposed agreement threatens the integrity of the professional Civil Service and imposes high costs on both agencies and applicants by requiring development and monitoring of hundreds of special purpose examinations linked to each special job skill. Noting that many of the 47 agencies affected--some of which, like the Federal Reserve and the General Accounting Office, are not part of the executive branch--were not consulted in the negotiations, he recommends that the government seek further delay of the court's decision to allow time for reconsideration.

Although it is by no means clear that the court would honor a government request to withdraw from a previously negotiated, if not yet final agreement, we agree with Mr. Morris that it is well worth a try. There will, no doubt, be strong resistance from many quarters to reopening the issue at a time when affirmative action plans are generally under fire. But adopting a hiring system for the federal government that is offensive to common notions of fairness does nothing in the long run to aid the very important cause of ending racial and ethnic discrimination in the job market.