WASHINGTON -- Like pebbles tossed into ponds, important Supreme Court rulings radiate ripples of consequences. Consider a 1971 Supreme Court decision that supposedly applied but actually altered the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
During debate on the act, prescient critics worried that it might be construed to forbid giving prospective employees tests that might produce what was later called, in the 1971 case, a "disparate impact" on certain preferred minorities. To assuage these critics, the final act stipulated that employers could use "professionally developed ability tests" that were not "designed, intended or used to discriminate."
Furthermore, two Senate sponsors of the act insisted that it did not require "that employers abandon bona fide qualification tests where, because of differences in background and educations, members of some groups are able to perform better on these tests than members of other groups." What subsequently happened is recounted in "Griggs v. Duke Power: Implications for College Credentialing," a paper written by Bryan O'Keefe, a law student, and Richard Vedder, a professor of economics at Ohio University.
In 1964, there were more than 2,000 personnel tests available to employers. But already an Illinois state official had ruled that a standard ability test, used by Motorola, was illegal because it was unfair to "disadvantaged groups."
Before 1964, Duke Power had discriminated against blacks in hiring and promotion. After the 1964 act, the company changed its policies, establishing a high school equivalence requirement for all workers, and allowing them to meet that requirement by achieving minimum scores on two widely used aptitude tests, including one that is used today by almost every NFL team to measure players' learning potentials.
Plaintiffs in the Griggs case argued that the high school and testing requirements discriminated against blacks. A unanimous Supreme Court, disregarding the relevant legislative history, held that Congress intended the 1964 act to proscribe not only overt discrimination but also "practices that are fair in form, but discriminatory in operation." The court added:
"The touchstone is business necessity. If an employment practice which operates to exclude Negroes cannot be shown to be related to job performance, the practice is prohibited."