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A little more than two years ago, U.S. District Judge Nicholas Politan found himself running out of patience during arguments in a job discrimination suit involving firefighters from Jersey City, N.J. A lawyer was demanding that copies of the exams given to job applicants be handed over to him in discovery. About halfway through the session, the attorney said he was experiencing “d�j� vu all over again” — he’d made the same argument, in the same case, 12 years before. Politan told the lawyer he did not know the half of it. “This case is from 1973! This is the year 2000,” he said. “You could have children grown and through law school [since] this case was filed.” Later, as the lawyer asked whether Politan was prepared to delay the hiring process pending further action, Politan lost his cool completely. “I may well restrain the appointment of the firefighters and let Jersey City burn,” he said, before immediately adding, “Please don’t quote me. You know what I mean.” Politan has since left the bench, but the case, Vulcan Pioneers v. New Jersey, 950-73, is still going strong. It will celebrate its 30th birthday this June. A related matter, Bronze Shields v. New Jersey, 2022-72, turns 31 in December. The two cases together are believed to constitute the longest active litigation in the District of New Jersey. They have been before four trial judges, three of whom have since retired. As the cases attracted interveners and produced consent decrees with the state, the Department of Justice and various parties, dozens of towns and their respective municipal worker unions have been dragged in. The number of lawyers involved through the years is probably in the hundreds, and many of them can track their careers by it. For instance, Essex Superior Court Judge Claude Coleman was a plaintiff in Bronze Shields as a young man trying to enter the Newark Police Department, and then a defendant in both cases when he became the city’s fire director and then police director. VISIONS OF ‘BLEAK HOUSE’ When contacted by the New Jersey Law Journal, many attorneys had forgotten their roles in the cases — or did not know it was still continuing — and none knew they had played a part in setting a record for courtroom longevity. But together, these lawyers agree, Vulcan Pioneers and Bronze Shields show every sign of turning into the Garden State’s version of “Jarndyce and Jarndyce,” the fictional action at the center of Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House,” which took so long that the original parties died. “This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least, but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises,” Dickens wrote. One attorney is responsible for both cases: Professor Jonathan Hyman of the Rutgers Law School Constitutional Litigation Clinic. “Believe me, it’s no honor,” he says. The disputes date to the late 1960s, when blacks and Hispanics in Newark, N.J., tried to join the almost all-white police and fire departments. Finding themselves “failing” the application tests in unusually large numbers, they approached minority organizations in both professions: the Vulcan Pioneers and the Bronze Shields. The original complaints argued that informal nepotism was rife in both services, skewing the test results. Sons and brothers followed their fathers and uncles into the professions; whites did better on the tests because their relatives in the departments were able to coach them on the questions. “They knew how to beat the system,” Hyman says. One of the original plaintiffs in Bronze Shields was Lester Elliott. His life reflects many of the frustrations and twists the case has seen. Elliott took the police test in 1969, failed and sued. He held a succession of jobs, including one as a teacher, but as the years went by, the unresolved suit frustrated his ambition to become a police officer, and Newark refused to admit him. The barrier seemed to become insurmountable in 2001, when he was diagnosed with a heart condition that required surgery. Newark Assistant Corporation Counsel Richard Gordon wants to keep Elliott out because he is “not of good moral character.” When Newark did the background check on all police candidates, the FBI indicated that Elliott had been arrested in Tacoma, Wash. “He tried to run over a police officer,” says Gordon. “Normally that would bar any candidate from being sworn in.” The disposition of the Tacoma case was unclear, Gordon says. “Newark has been unfairly and unkindly discriminating against me for I don’t know how long,” Elliott says, speaking from the hotel where he lives in East Orange, N.J. He insists his record is clean: “I was not found guilty of any charge.” Elliott, Hyman and Gordon all decline to detail the allegations against Elliott. Chief Judge John Bissell ruled that the Tacoma incident was so long in the past that it had no bearing on the application. In January of this year, Bissell ordered Newark to admit the 57-year-old into its police force for a week so he could then immediately retire with backpay and a pension dated to 2001. EFFECT ON HIRING PRACTICES Aside from their length, the cases also have had a substantial impact on government hiring. Police officers and firefighters across dozens of towns are hired, promoted and laid off according to formulas laid down in dozens of orders. Exams created by the Department of Personnel for thousands of government service jobs are controlled by decisions made in both suits. As the litigation spilled beyond Newark to encompass towns across the state, judges found themselves setting extraordinarily broad hiring quotas. At one point, Newark had to hire one minority officer for every two whites; at another, Hoboken had to fill 40 percent of its firefighter jobs with minorities. As the cases became increasingly complex, judges began micro-managing certain departments. Individual officers named in court papers were promoted or laid off at the bang of a gavel. The court found itself becoming distressed by the effect of its own decisions, not just on the parties but on itself. In 1984, Judge H. Lee Sarokin found himself bound by a previous ruling on a question of whether senior white firefighters should be fired in order to save the jobs of less experienced minorities. “Though not themselves the perpetrators of the wrongs inflicted upon minorities over the years, these senior firefighters are … being required to hand over their jobs and paychecks to someone else. It is inconceivable that they can be asked to do this in the name of the public good,” wrote Sarokin. He fired them anyway. A year later, Sarokin found himself faced with the same dilemma. “The need for judicial intervention in these matters ill serves the public interest and the private rights here involved. Undoubtedly the courts, once again, will be blamed for the adverse consequences which will befall successful candidates who will be denied promotion at this time.” When Politan took over the case, he took a more aggressive approach. In 1995, he threatened to lock the parties in his court for nine hours a day, every day, until they reached an agreement. It did not stop the flood of paper. So, in a later opinion, Politan resolved “to put an end” to the “neglect” and “delays” that have “plagued this process,” ordering a brisk schedule of briefings and hearings for both sides. That was four years ago. Perhaps surprisingly, there is broad agreement on all sides that the litigation has achieved some good things for the state, and Newark in particular. David Fox, of Fox & Fox in Livingston, N.J., has represented the Firemen’s Mutual Benevolent Association almost as long as Hyman has represented the plaintiffs. “I think it’s done what it was designed to do,” he says. “It’s resulted in higher numbers of minorities in the fire service. In that sense it has worked.” Fox is still fighting, however, because the current job tests ask questions about candidates’ families, which he believes are irrelevant to the profession. Such questions are used to weed out many of his clients’ favored candidates — relatives of existing firefighters. “If I were hiring that would be a good thing,” he says, noting that a closely knit firehouse is likely to be more dedicated to the job. For the plaintiffs, Hyman sees the biggest victory as being when Newark was ordered to hire its first female police officer — in the late 1980s — as a result of a suit that grew out of Bronze Shields. “Newark has hired hundreds of police officers during that time and they have all been affected by that decree. The hiring has been fairer,” he says. Bronze Shields may be nearing an end. There is a sunset provision in the consent decree that closes the matter when the number of minorities in the force reaches a certain proportion, and the number of individual plaintiffs with outstanding claims, such as Elliott, has dwindled to less than a half-dozen. Vulcan Pioneers, however, looks set to burn brightly for the foreseeable future. Fox wants the new job tests thrown out and the consent decree ended. The decree, which renamed the case U.S.A. v. New Jersey, has brought three other cases under its umbrella. On the positive side, Fox notes, “I believe the discovery is winding down.”

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