Black, Latino Challenge to L.A. County Fire Dept. Exam Fails : Supreme Court Rejects Claim of Racial Bias

Associated Press

The Supreme Court today threw out a lawsuit by blacks and Latinos challenging a test for Los Angeles County Fire Department applicants as racially biased.

The court, without comment, let stand a decision upholding use of the examination.

The case has a complicated history.

In 1969, the county voluntarily abandoned a Civil Service exam and physical agility test for firefighter applicants because they discriminated against minorities.

In 1972, a test that included a random selection procedure was blocked because of a suit that said it violated Civil Service regulations and the County Charter.

Faced with a manpower shortage, the county proposed to interview the highest-ranking 544 applicants who took the test. The figure included 492 whites, 10 blacks and 33 Latinos.

55% Minority Hiring

Blacks and Latinos sued the following year, and a federal judge ordered that at least two of every five Fire Department recruits be minority members.

The plan remained in effect until 1979, yielding a 55% minority hiring rate during that period.

When the court order expired, the county revised its testing procedure.

The 1979 examination--which was challenged in the lawsuit that reached the Supreme Court today--measured mechanical comprehension, spatial perception and verbal ability. Applicants who got fewer than 53 correct answers on the 95-question multiple-choice test were excluded from further consideration.

Those who scored 53 or higher qualified for an oral interview. Applicants were then ranked to be eligible to fill department openings.

The federal suit filed by blacks and Latinos alleged that the procedure discriminated against them. They said the test is not job-related and has caused the selection rate for minorities to drop to 18%, although one out of three applicants for the department is black or Latino.

Procedure Upheld

Last September, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the testing procedure is valid even though statistically it has a disparate impact against minorities.

“An employer is not required to choose the selection device with the least adverse impact on minority applicants,” the appeals court said. “The county adopted the challenged procedures after meaningful study of their relationship to job performance ability.”

In other actions today, the court:

--Ruled that denying a criminal defendant the right to cross-examine fully a prosecution witness is not automatic grounds for throwing out a conviction.

The court said, by a 6-3 vote, that the test must be whether limiting cross-examination is “harmless error” that had no bearing on the outcome of the verdict.

--Ruled unanimously that federal courts, not labor arbitrators, must decide whether certain collective bargaining disputes are to be resolved through arbitration.

--Prevented actor Sylvester Stallone from buying 5 1/2 acres of beachfront property on the Hawaiian island of Kauai by letting stand a ruling that barred owners of the property from selling it to Stallone for $1.75 million rather than another buyer who had submitted an earlier offer of $1.4 million.