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Court Relaxes Rules To Challenge Affirmative Action

Wed., Jan. 17, 1996

The Supreme Court cleared the way Tuesday for white men to challenge government affirmative action “goals” in court even when they cannot show they have been hurt by them.

The court’s action, in a California case, probably will widen the legal attack on public programs that steer contracts, jobs and other benefits to women or members of racial minorities.

In the past, the court had maintained that a plaintiff must have suffered a true loss, such as losing a contract or a job, to have the “standing” to bring a lawsuit challenging a government program as unconstitutional. But the justices have relaxed that rule recently in affirmative action cases.

In July, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco relied on the new approach to revive a white architect’s challenge to a state utility directive that has steered $1.1 billion a year in business to companies owned by blacks, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans or women.

White men have a right to challenge a state policy that “effectively encourages, if not compels, (utility companies) to adopt discriminatory programs” that favor minorities and women, wrote Chief Judge J. Clifford Wallace for a 2-1 majority.

Lawyers for the state Public Utility Commission appealed. Supported by California’s giant utilities, the commission’s attorneys said the ruling puts the entire program in jeopardy.

They argued their affirmative-action effort should be upheld because it simply “establishes voluntary goals, not quotas, set-asides or preferences.”

They also insisted the architect’s lawsuit should be thrown out because he cannot show he lost a contract because of the state’s program.

But Tuesday, the high court rejected the state agency’s appeal and cleared the way for the architect to seek a federal court order striking down the policy as unconstitutional.

The case now goes before U.S. District Judge William Orrick in San Francisco for trial.

In other action Tuesday, the Supreme Court:

Limited the damages that can be won by families of people killed over water in international air disasters.

In a 9-0 ruling, the court said a mother whose daughter died when Soviet fighters shot down a Korean Air Lines jet in 1983 cannot win money for her “loss of society.”

The law allows damages only for financial losses, the court said in Zicherman vs. KAL. Damages in international air crashes already are limited by the Warsaw Convention.

Let stand a ruling that awarded patents for developing AZT, the main drug used in treating AIDS patients, to Burroughs Wellcome Co.

The decision, in Barr Labs vs. Burroughs, was a setback for generic drug-makers who said they should be allowed to sell the drug because scientists at the government’s National Institutes of Health had helped put the Burroughs’ discovery into use.

A federal patent court disagreed, ruling that inventors need not show how their discoveries can be used to obtain a patent.

Refused to hear a free-speech challenge to the government’s procedure for fining broadcasters who air indecent programs.

The Federal Communications Commission can fine a station up to $25,000 for violating its policy on indecency, and it can take years for a broadcaster to contest the fine in court. But the justices have been unwilling to reconsider the issue of indecency in broadcasting.


 
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