State and local governments are resisting efforts by the Justice Department to end their use of numerical goals in hiring and promoting public employes, according to a survey and several official responses disclosed yesterday.
Since last December the department has sent letters to state and local governments -- including several in Maryland and Virginia -- suggesting that they join the federal government in attempting to reopen 53 equal-employment agreements or consent decrees, most involving police and fire departments.
A survey by the private Bureau of National Affairs found that only three jurisdictions -- the Arkansas State Police; the police and fire departments in Buffalo, N.Y.; and the police force in Wichita Falls, Tex. -- have said they will join with the Justice Department in the effort.
At the same time, Barry Goldstein, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, said copies of 19 official responses to the department -- obtained under a Freedom of Information request -- "indicate an overwhelming rejection of the Justice Department and support for the effectiveness of affirmative action to end discrimination."
For example, Boston pledged to "vigorously oppose" the department's efforts, while Macon, Ga., said it "will fight any effort to modify the consent order."
The quotas or goals in the existing decrees and court orders had been requested by the Justice Department during previous administrations because of allegedly discriminatory hiring practices. The Reagan administration policy change was made by William Bradford Reynolds, head of the department's Civil Rights Division, who opposes quota systems and has not included quotas in any consent decree signed since August 1981.
Asked about the BNA survey, John Wilson, a spokesman for Reynolds, said only, "Our count is a little different."
The Justice Department letters were prompted by a Supreme Court decision last June in a Memphis case, Firefighters Local No. 1784 v. Stotts. The court found that black firefighters hired as a result of affirmative action policies should not be spared during layoffs when firefighters with more seniority were being laid off.
The BNA survey found that 26 of the jurisdictions that received the letters said they will not join the Justice Department in attempting to modify their consent decrees, while 11 did not consider the Justice Department letters applicable to their cases and seven were undecided. Some jurisdictions received more than one Justice Department request, accounting for the remaining six cases.
The BNA, a publisher of specialized newsletters, found that some jurisdictions refused to go along with the Justice Department because they considered attempts to modify the decrees as a "retreat on affirmative action." Others disagreed with the department's interpretation of the Supreme Court's ruling in Stotts, saying the court addressed only the issues of layoffs and seniority -- not hiring and promotion goals.
Harold Juran, the deputy city attorney in Norfolk, told BNA that the city would not go along with a motion to modify the consent decree governing police and fire department hiring practices because it does not want to have "old wounds reopened."
Michael Owen, an Indianapolis attorney who has worked on that city's job discrimination case, said that hiring standards at the police and fire departments have actually become more rigorous since the decree went into effect. "It's not just good social policy, but good business," he said.
Maryland, where state police are operating under a consent decree, has not announced its response to the letter. But a state spokesman said there is a "broad-based policy of the governor and the attorney general to stand behind the consent decree and their expressed policy to vigorously oppose the Justice Department's efforts."
Justice announced recently that the police department in San Diego was joining the government in seeking to have its consent decree set aside. However, San Diego, one of the 11 jurisdictions that did not consider the Justice Department request applicable to their cases, had separately asked the court to set aside the decree on grounds that the city had complied with its terms.
Even those joining the department in the effort have reacted cautiously. For example, a spokesman for the Arkansas State Police who have joined with Justice, said he wouldn't want the decision to seek modification of the decree to be "a green light for unfair treatment."
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.) introduced legislation this month to prevent the department from going to court to modify existing consent decrees with affirmative action provisions.