The Civil Rights Brawl Is Back As Ugly As Ever

Last year, an effort to strengthen civil rights laws blew up when President Bush, in the heat of the congressional campaign, vetoed what he denounced as a "quota bill." Earlier this year, it appeared that talks between business and civil rights groups might produce an accord to toughen the rules against job discrimination that would be acceptable to the White House. Curiously enough, negotiators quickly resolved the issue of quotas but were unable to settle a renewed dispute over antibias remedies for women. As a result, the bill faces a contentious and uncertain future.

The revived effort to overturn a series of 1989 Supreme Court rulings that narrowed the scope of antidiscrimination laws got off to a good start. Beginning in December, representatives of the Business Roundtable, including executives from AT&T, Johnson & Johnson, American Express, and Union Pacific, met secretly with Ralph Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, an organization of minority and women's groups. Both sides wanted to avoid a repeat of last year's brawl over quotas. The business representatives even accepted civil rights advocates' demand that the burden of proof in certain job discrimination cases be shifted to employers.

But the talks stalled when business insisted that there be limits on the damages women can claim in bias suits. Under current law, minority victims of discrimination can seek unlimited damages in jury trials. Women, however, can win only back pay.

EQUAL VICTIMS. Business agrees--and so does the Bush Administration--that women should have a better deal, but women's groups are demanding equal treatment with minorities. "We support a bill that provides women with the full range of remedies that have been available for years to other victims of discrimination," says Marcia Greenberger, managing attorney at the National Women's Law Center. "We don't support anything short of that." The Roundtable wants to prohibit jury trials for women and limit their damages to $150,000 plus back pay.

With talks bogged down, liberal Democrats are racing ahead with legislation that is a virtual carbon copy of the vetoed 1990 measure, even though it will almost certainly be vetoed. On Mar. 12, the bill was approved by both the full House Education & Labor Committee and a Judiciary subcommittee. It should reach the House floor in early April, and Senate hearings are expected soon.

Large corporations had hoped for a measure to clear up the murky legal situation. Big business had grown comfortable with the rules built on a 1971 Supreme Court decision that said companies could be sued over hiring policies, such as minimum physical requirements, that had the effect of excluding minorities. "Major companies have lived with it for a number of years, and it's not been a problem," says a representative of one big employer. But in 1989, the high court tossed out its earlier ruling, leaving the law in confusion.

As a result of the stalemate, substance is once again taking a back seat to the nasty politics of civil rights. Despite the reservations of some Southerners, most Democrats remain committed to a sweeping measure. Moderate Republicans--including the President--want a compromise acceptable to business. But many GOP strategists relish the prospect of hitting Democrats with the quota issue again in 1992. "It's become a political issue and not a factual issue," says Senator John B. Breaux (D-La.)

Big corporations hoped to get the matter out of the way quickly this year. But it looks as though another year-long battle over civil rights is looming.