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Court clears way for dismantling of affirmative action

The Supreme Court has rejected a broad challenge to California's Proposition 209, clearing the way for enforcement of the nation's first across-the-board repeal of affirmative action in state and local government.

Without a dissenting vote Monday, the justices turned aside an appeal from the American Civil Liberties Union claiming that government sometimes had "an affirmative duty . . . to employ race preferences" to make up for past or present discrimination against minorities.

Instead, the justices let stand a lower-court ruling saying the Constitution requires the government to treat all persons equally, regardless of their race.

The outcome marks a major victory for the champions of a new color-blind standard for government.

California Gov. Pete Wilson, the chief sponsor of the successful voter initiative, stressed that the civil-rights movement of the 1960s originally sought to eliminate race as a factor in government decisions, not to elevate it to a prime consideration.

"It is time for those who have resisted Proposition 209 to acknowledge that equal rights under law, not special preferences, is the law of the land," Wilson said. "A measure that eliminates any form of discrimination based on race and gender violates no one's constitutional rights."

Opponents of affirmative action predict their triumph in California will echo nationwide.

In Florida, a similar affirmative action proposal is among dozens of possibilities being reviewed by a 37-member panel looking at changing the state Constitution. But it is difficult to tell what, if any, action the Constitution Revision Commission might take on the issue when it concludes a series of statewide hearings in May.

Today, voters in Houston will decide whether to repeal the city's affirmative action programs. Advocates are seeking to put a similar measure before the voters of Washington state.

Other states with repeal efforts under way are Colorado, Ohio, Arizona and Nevada.

Until now, however, no one has followed California's lead.

On Capitol Hill, Republican leaders have been hesitant in repealing affirmative action, fearful of alienating women and minority voters. Last year, House Speaker Newt Gingrich endorsed a proposal to repeal the federal government's use of racial preferences in contracting and jobs, but he also refused to bring the bill to a floor vote.

But that may be changing. The House Judiciary Committee announced it will vote Thursday on a bill patterned after Proposition 209. Dubbed the Civil Rights Act of 1997, the bill would prohibit the government from discriminating against or granting preferential treatment to anyone on the basis of race or gender "in connection with federal contracts, employment or other programs and activities."

Rep. Charles Canady, R-Fla., the principal sponsor of that legislation, predicted Monday that the court's decision would give new momentum to his bill.

The White House, in keeping with President Clinton's "mend it, don't end it" stance on affirmative action, had a low-key reaction Monday.

"I think our views of Proposition 209 are very well known," said press secretary Mike McCurry. In the lower courts, the administration submitted a friend-of-the-court brief calling the measure unconstitutional.

Over the past four years, the Clinton administration and the Supreme Court have been on a collision course regarding affirmative action.

The administration, speaking through the Justice Department, has insisted that "race-conscious" programs remain legal. The justices have rejected this view and ignored the administration's legal briefs on the question.

Over the past decade, the justices have rejected every race-based affirmative action plan to come before them, whether involving public contracts, college admissions, student scholarships or voting districts.

Passed by a 54 percent to 46 percent vote last year, Proposition 209 says "the state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin."

While lawyers on both sides said Monday's decision ends the major legal challenges to Proposition 209, there likely will be further lawsuits involving its enforcement.

Clearly, the law forbids "preferential treatment" in selecting among applicants, but some say that merely encouraging more minorities and women to apply for jobs can still pass muster.

_ Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.