Civil rights groups say the Supreme Court's ruling Monday in a Michigan "reverse discrimination" case was a major victory that ensures the survival of affirmative action plans sponsored by public employers.
Administration officials, in contrast, caution that the opinion was unclear, that it upheld much of their view and that further litigation is needed before a final assessment can be made.
The responses were a role reversal from the rhetoric two years ago, after the high court said a judge could not order white firefighters in Memphis laid off to preserve jobs for blacks with less seniority.
Administration officials hailed that ruling as a complete vindication of their opposition to broad affirmative action plans.
Civil rights groups, by contrast, said the Memphis ruling was limited to that case, that Justice Byron R. White's strong comments against affirmative action were only legal asides and that further litigation was needed.
The divergent claims about what a decision means reflect the fact that partisans tend to read opinions in the light most favorable to their cause. More importantly, they reflect the difficulty of trying to interpret decisions on an extremely complex issue on which the court has been unable to muster a clear majority for more than a decade.
The complexity is worsened when, as occurred Monday, there is no coherent majority for the court's analysis and when the justices produce many separate opinions -- in this case, five.
The ruling did send one clear message: For three years, civil rights groups have feared that the Burger court was preparing to gut affirmative action plans. If nothing else, Monday's decision demonstrates that the court is contemplating nothing of the kind.
The ruling Monday struck down a voluntary arrangement between a teachers' union in Jackson, Mich., and the local school board to lay off whites before less-senior blacks in order to preserve minority hiring gains.
But, an opinion by Lewis F. Powell Jr., joined by three other justices, said broad affirmative action plans with hiring goals for minorities might be permitted.
Four dissenters wanted to uphold the Jackson plan. Most importantly, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, while agreeing to strike down the Jackson plan, specifically said there was a "degree of unanimity" among the justices that, contrary to the administration's view, affirmative action plans may benefit more than just the actual victims of discrimination.
"The Justice Department position was rejected by nine justices," said attorney Barry Goldstein of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. "I don't see how anybody who can read can say differently."
But Bruce Fein, a former department official and an American Enterprise Institute scholar, said the ruling is an "85 to 90 percent victory" for the Reagan administration and that affirmative action plans still must be limited to victims. Regarding O'Connor's analysis of the court's views, Fein said: "Justice O'Connor is wrong."
The impact of the Michigan teachers ruling hinges on O'Connor's assessment, since she is the swing vote in a court split 4-1-4. She said a substantial majority on the court agrees that the public employers could use hiring goals to remedy past discrimination and that government employers may act without any court or other formal findings that they discriminated in the past.
Conservatives point out that no justice joined O'Connor's concurring opinion. "She just muddied the waters," said attorney Paul Kamenar of the Washington Legal Foundation.
On the other hand, no justice challenged her assessment. Since her views, coupled with those of the four dissenters in the Michigan case, would command a majority, the ruling yesterday is a major setback for those in the Reagan administration pushing to undo broad affirmative action plans as well as the executive order requiring government contractors to hire minorities.
Affirmative action, after yesterday's ruling, appears be alive and well as a concept -- even if some or many individual plans are overturned -- and public employers for the first time have the court's blessing to use carefully tailored hiring goals to increase the number of minority workers.
Further clarification may come later this spring when the court rules on two other affirmative action cases.
But liberals were right that the Memphis case two years ago changed nothing. They appear also to be right when they say Monday's ruling also will leave affirmative action efforts intact.