Massachusetts Consent Decree on Racial Quotas to Expire at the End of 2024

The US District Court for the District of Massachusetts has ruled that a fifty-year-old consent decree that mandated strict race-conscious hiring quotas for Massachusetts fire departments has achieved its intended goals in all but three communities, and will be terminated on December 31, 2024. The consent decree was the result of a series of lawsuits brought in the early 1970s by the Boston Chapter of the NAACP against the State of Massachusetts Human Resources Division.

The state Human Resource Division handles civil service for most municipalities in Massachusetts. The consent decree issued in 1972 applied to all police and fire departments that utilize the Human Resource Division to hire new candidates.

In explaining the consent decree, the ruling stated:

  • The consent decrees called on cities and towns to hire one minority candidate for every three nonminority candidates (except in Boston and Springfield, where the ratio was one to one) until they reached a level of minority representation in their police and fire departments commensurate with the municipality’s overall minority population.
  • In the ensuing years, nearly all police and fire departments achieved the required parity, with five still subject to the consent decrees as of this writing: the Chelsea, Holyoke, and Lawrence fire departments and the Holyoke and Randolph police departments.
  • The Court entered consent decrees requiring more than 100 municipalities to hire police officers and firefighters using a one-to-three minority to nonminority ratio until they reached “rough parity” with their overall minority population

In a 2018 decision in the same case, the court explained the how the race-conscious hiring quotas were employed by the Human Resources Division, using a law enforcement example:

  • The … consent decree required HRD to prepare certification lists by creating two groups. The first, “Group A,” would “consist of all Black and Spanish-surnamed applicants who pass a future police entrance examination and are otherwise qualified for appointment on the basis of existing requirements.”
  • The second, “Group B,” would “consist of all other persons who pass a future police entrance examination and are otherwise qualified for appointment on the basis of existing requirements.”
  • When an appointing authority, such as the City [of Boston], sought to hire police officers, it would send a request to HRD, which would send the appointing authority a certification list ordered “on the basis of one candidate from Group A for every candidate certified from Group B.”
  • In making its hiring decisions, if the appointing authority chose to reject a candidate in favor of another candidate who appeared lower on the HRD list, HRD would not approve the appointment unless the appointing authority “furnished [HRD] with a written statement of [its] reasons” for doing so; HRD would then provide a “written statement of those reasons to . . . the candidate upon written request.”
  • The [consent] decree was to remain in effect for a given city until that city’s police department “achieves a complement of minorities commensurate with the percentage of minorities within the community.”

In the 2018 decision, the court acknowledged that the 1 for 3 hiring requirement served to suppress minority hiring in certain communities that had experienced large increases in minority populations since 1972, which served the opposite of what was intended. The NAACP sought to extend the consent decree for another 18 years, or until 2040. In explaining its decision to end the consent decree in 2024 the court reasoned as follows:

  • A race-conscious remedy must survive strict scrutiny: it must be justified by a strong state interest and narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.
  • In determining whether to end an institutional reform consent decree, a court should consider “whether the agency in question has come into compliance with constitutional requirements,” keeping in mind that principles of federalism dictate that “[a]n intrusion by a federal court into the affairs of local government should be kept to a bare minimum and not be allowed to continue after the violation has abated and its pernicious effects have been cured.”
  • Plaintiffs [NAACP] contend that the consent decrees at issue here should only terminate when each remaining police and fire department achieves rough parity.
  • Defendants submit that the consent decrees should terminate for all remaining municipalities by the end of 2024.
  • The Court agrees with Defendants.
  • Because there is no contention that the harm from HRD’s original, 1970’s-era examinations is ongoing, the question is how long the Court should extend the remedial measures it imposed when the parties discovered the discriminatory effects of the cap on minority hiring in 2016.
  • The Court finds that HRD has implemented the consent decrees, including the 2018 modifications, in good faith and that much of the harm from the cap has already been cured.
  • Every individual whom the parties identified as having been directly discriminated against because of the cap has now had a renewed opportunity for appointment through placement at the top of hiring certifications.
  • Moreover, since 2016, the number of minority officers within most of the remaining departments has increased – in some cases dramatically.
  • Termination at the end of 2024 would give each remaining municipality a reasonable chance of making progress toward parity without unduly intruding into local affairs.
  • The eighteen-year extension that Plaintiffs seek is simply not narrowly tailored to remedying past harm as there is no reason to think it would capture any remaining individuals who were harmed by the cap and it would likely stretch the consent decrees beyond the period during which they could reasonably expect to achieve rough parity.
  • For the foregoing reasons, the Court orders that the consent decrees be modified to terminate effective December 31, 2024.

Here is a copy of the decision:

Here is a copy of the 2018 decision referred to in the 2022 ruling:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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