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Court says contractors can sue over set-aside

A Jacksonville contractors group has a right to sue the city over an affirmative action program accused of violating the rights of companies owned by white men, the U.S. Supreme Court said Monday.

In a 7-2 vote, the court said the association of contractors has the legal standing to sue over an ordinance that set aside some public construction contracts for firms owned by minorities.

The decision reversed a federal appeals court ruling that said the association lacked standing to sue because it had not identified a specific contract any of its members would have won if the ordinance did not exist.

The ruling left federal courtroom doors open to people who want to challenge governmental programs _ a result urged by various civil rights groups who supported the contractors' appeal.

Mike Dunham, executive vice president of the Northeast Florida Chapter of the Association of General Contractors, which filed the lawsuit, called the ruling "precedent-setting" on standing.

Such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund said the lower court's ruling could block lawsuits over "the denial of equal opportunity to compete for a benefit."

The high court agreed.

"A party challenging a set-aside program like Jacksonville's need only demonstrate that it is able and ready to bid on contracts and that a discriminatory policy prevents it from doing so on an equal basis," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court.

Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Harry A. Blackmun dissented, arguing that the controversy is moot because Jacksonville has amended its program, which originally required that 10 percent of the amount budgeted for contracts be set aside.