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Martin v. Wilks


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490 U.S. 755 (1989), argued 18 Jan. 1989, decided 12 June 1989 by vote of 5 to 4; Rehnquist for the Court, Stevens, joined by Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun, in dissent. A group of African-American firefighters alleged racial discrimination in hiring and promoting by Birmingham, Alabama, and a county personnel board. Before finally approving consent decrees providing for long-term and interim annual goals for the hiring and promotion of African-American firefighters, a federal district court ordered public notice of a hearing on the fairness of the decrees. The Birmingham Firefighters Association (BFA) appeared at the hearing, objected to the decrees, and sought to intervene. The Court denied their motions as untimely. Some other white firefighters, also members of the BFA, then brought a reverse discrimination action against the city and the personnel board. They argued that the consent decree made them victims of racial discrimination because they were being denied promotions in favor of less-qualified blacks.

The Supreme Court posed the issue as being a choice between whether the African-American plaintiffs should have joined all possibly affected parties before entry of the consent decree or whether possibly affected parties should have to seek to intervene in the lawsuit resulting in the consent decree. The Court held that the white firefighters, not having been parties to the original litigation, were not bound by the consent decree. The Court indicated that plaintiffs who seek to alter employment practices are best able to bear the burden of identifying those who might be adversely affected if plaintiffs prevail. Plaintiffs should join such parties to their lawsuit. Such parties need not seek to intervene. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 limited the scope of Martin v. Wilks and made it marginally more difficult for third parties to attack hiring and promotion decisions based on employment discrimination consent decrees.

Theodore Eisenberg

Subjects: Law.


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