Martin v. Wilks

LOCATION: Sable Communications of California

DOCKET NO.: 87-1614
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

CITATION: 490 US 755 (1989)
ARGUED: Jan 18, 1989
DECIDED: Jun 12, 1989

James P. Alexander - Argued the cause for the petitioners in the Personnel Board and Arrington cases
Raymond P. Fitzpatrick, Jr. - Argued the cause for the respondents Wilks et al
Robert D. Joffe - Argued the cause for the petitioners in the Martin case
Thomas W. Merrill - Argued the cause for the United States

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.


Did Wilks and other white firefighters have a constitutional right to challenge the previously established decrees?

Media for Martin v. Wilks

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 18, 1989 in Martin v. Wilks

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument first this morning in No. 87-1614, Martin against Wilks and companion cases.

Mr. Alexander, you may proceed.

James P. Alexander:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court:

Petitioners divide their argument this morning.

I will address the facts and circumstances why respondents, in fairness and equity, are precluded from relitigating the validity of consent decrees providing race conscious relief entered after seven years of contested litigation.

Respondents are precluded for two reasons.

First, they knowingly sat on the by... sidelines of this litigation for seven years without either intervening or otherwise claiming an interest in the case.

Thereafter, they were afforded an opportunity at a fairness hearing to contest the issue of race conscious relief, and they had a full and fair opportunity to do so on that occasion.

We argue for the following rule in the nature of collateral estoppel where the lawfulness of remedial race relief has been determined, where non-minority employees have had a meaningful opportunity to participate in that determination, then they cannot thereafter repeatedly relitigate that issue in separate cases.

We believe that the rule we propose adequately accommodates the interest of non-parties; conserves judicial resources; and certainly, in Title VII litigation, provides an opportunity for the prompt settlement that Congress has mandated where possible.

No better illustration of the difficulties of a contrary role exists than this very case.

In accepting the invitation of the United States to settle this case in 1981, the city of Birmingham, Alabama, agreed to comprehensive consent decrees to conclude seven years of litigation.

In terminating--

William H. Rehnquist:

Had... had the people who sought to intervene there, were they named in that action?

James P. Alexander:

--I'm sorry, Your Honor.

The people who sought to intervene--

William H. Rehnquist:

The people who sought intervention, had they been named as defendants in the action?

James P. Alexander:

--They had not, Your Honor.

William H. Rehnquist:

Do you know why they weren't named?

James P. Alexander:

Certainly at the time the litigation was filed by the United States, the United States didn't name... they certainly did not have the view that they were necessary or indispensable parties for purposes of providing relief under Rule 19.

Thereafter, we were aware, of course, that the same individuals who subsequently did try to intervene unsuccessfully at a later point were interested in the litigation from the outset, participated certainly by consulting with our co-defendant, the personnel board, through a period of two trials, one in 1976, one in 1979, without ever intervening.

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, you know, some of our cases, like Justice Brandeis' opinion, I think, in Chase National Bank against the City of Norwalk, there isn't any duty to intervene in a case.

James P. Alexander:


William H. Rehnquist:

Are you trying... are you suggesting a special rule for this type of case?

You're suggesting that case is wrongly decided?

James P. Alexander:

--I'm suggesting that case was decided under the old rule and may not be fully applicable now.


William H. Rehnquist:

Well, what... what has changed that would make that case inapplicable?

James P. Alexander:

--Well, it seems to me, Your Honor, that... that in the Penn-Central case, this Court with respect to the Burough of Moosic clearly determined that they had an obligation to intervene in the pending litigation in New York.

And when they failed to do so, they were precluded, and we think properly so, from relitigating issues that were fairly subject to litigation in the earlier case.