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California's Affirmative Action Ban Goes Into Effect Today

By William Claiborne
The Washington Post

After nearly a year-long battle in the courts, California can now begin implementing a controversial new law that eliminates race and sex as factors in a variety of state programs, from hiring to education and contracting. The measure makes this state the first in the country to abolish affirmative action programs, a move that has captured the interest of public officials nationwide in the face of growing pressure to scrap or limit racial preferences. Campaigns for similar bans are underway in several other states.

A coalition of civil rights groups fought the initiative in various federal courts, arguing that the law abolished only programs that benefited women and minorities while keeping preferences for those who sought them on such grounds as age, disability or veteran status.

But on Tuesday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied the group's latest attempt to prevent the law from going into effect, clearing the way for it to take effect Thursday.

The American Civil Liberties Union plans to appeal to the Supreme Court in a last-ditch attempt to halt the law. However, the high court rarely grants emergency requests to postpone the effects of a new law or to otherwise intervene in a case before a hearing on its merits.

This means that in theory, at least, government agencies from the biggest state offices in Sacramento down to the smallest local water and sewer districts have to immediately begin dismantling affirmative action programs that are in conflict with the voter-approved ban.

Called Proposition 209, or the California Civil Rights Initiative, the law requires that the state "not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis or race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting."

The ban does not affect private corporations or other non-government groups, nor does it apply to federal affirmative action programs or state programs needed to maintain eligibility for federal aid.

But potentially, enforcement of the ban could quickly cut a wide path through many public sector affirmative action programs ranging from police department efforts to increase the number of black and Hispanic officers in their ranks to recruitment drives for women firefighters. In contracting, many government agencies will be forced to abandon long-standing practices aimed at awarding bids to minority or women-owned businesses.

While the measure has overcome several key legal hurdles, state and local governments are far from sorting out how they will obey the new law. And some county officials said that in a practical sense, bureaucratic procedures will delay enforcement even if the Supreme Court does not intervene.