Martin v. Wilks Case Brief

Why is the case important?

White firefighters, nonparties to a consent decree, challenged a decree, which mandated affirmative action in the hiring and promotion of blacks as firefighters.

Facts of the case

As a result of a lawsuit in 1974, the Jefferson County Personnel Board in Birmingham, Alabama, entered into consent decrees that included hiring blacks as firefighters and for promoting them. The decrees were approved by a federal district court. Years later, Robert K. Wilks, a white firefighter, challenged the decrees and alleged that whites were being denied promotions in favor of less qualified blacks. Wilks argued that such practices violated Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The personnel board agreed that it was making race-conscious decisions but argued it was doing so pursuant to the original decrees. The Court combined arguments in two companion cases: Personnel Board v. Wilks and Arrington v. Wilks.


Whether a consent decree, which mandated affirmative action could preclude another suit challenging the validity of the subject matter brought by persons not party to the prior action.


No. It is a principle of general application in Anglo-American jurisprudence that one is not bound by a judgment in personam in which he was not a party. This rule is part of our deep-seated tradition that everyone be afforded his day in court.



  • Case Brief: 1989
  • Petitioner: Martin
  • Respondent: Wilks
  • Decided by: Rehnquist Court

Citation: 490 US 755 (1989)
Argued: Jan 18, 1989
Decided: Jun 12, 1989