updated 1/7/2007 6:00:58 PM ET 2007-01-07T23:00:58

A racial discrimination lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Transportation is drawing to an end after more than 21 years of legal battles that cost the state more than $200 million and created dramatic advances for black employees.

The litigation has gone on so long that six different governors have been involved with it, and the original plaintiff, Johnny Reynolds, died two years ago without seeing a resolution.

Reynolds sued the Department of Transportation in May 1985, when Gov. George C. Wallace was serving his last term. His suit contended discrimination in the highway agency’s hiring and promotion of blacks.

Eventually, some white employees joined in, saying they were also discriminated against because they weren’t promoted during the drawn-out litigation.

The focal point of the case — a consent decree reached between the state and the plaintiffs in 1994, when Jim Folsom Jr. was governor — was finally completed last year by Gov. Bob Riley’s administration after years of delays, and it was allowed to expire on Dec. 31.

The expiration of the decree — which spelled out hiring and promotion goals for the agency to achieve — doesn’t mean the case is completely over.

“There are a lot of issues left,” including what to do with millions in fines paid by the state, said Robert Wiggins, lead attorney for the plaintiffs.

Fingerpointing under way
Each side blames the others for the delays.

In 1994, when the consent decree was reached, 24 percent of the department’s employees were black, but many minority employees were in lower-paying jobs classified as “service maintenance.” Few blacks were in high-paying jobs, with 9 percent of the professionals being black and 10 percent of the technicians.

By 2003, the staff was 35 percent black, and many of the black employees were in higher-paying job. That included 31 percent of the department’s professionals and 25 percent of its technicians.

The 35 percent black staff has remained consistent since 2003, and it is much higher statistically than the overall labor market and higher than Alabama’s 26 percent black population.

State officials say the state has paid out $206 million, so far, on litigation costs and that will climb some as the case winds down. The expenses include paying the legal bills for both sides, hiring consultants and experts, paying contempt fines, and compensating people who suffered damages.

They estimated an additional $100 million in “soft costs,” including paying state employees who focused on implementing new hiring and promotion practices and the extra cost of contracting out state engineering work that would have been in-house except for a long hiring freeze that resulted from the case.

Could have paved interstate highways — all of them
The governor said the cost is more than enough to pave all 1,000 miles of interstate highways in Alabama and then give Interstate 20 a second layer.

“Now, we will be able to direct the money we have been paying in legal bills and fines back into making our highways better and safer,” Riley said Thursday.

When Riley entered office in 2003, the state was paying $63,000 per week in court fines. In his first State of the State speech, Riley said ending the long-running case was a top priority.

Working with Attorney General Troy King and the state personnel department, state Transportation Director Joe McInnes hired a team of lawyers to work on each aspect of the case. They quickly whittled down unresolved issues, got the fines stopped, and rebuilt the staff with new hiring and promotions procedures.

The transportation department, which was reduced to 3,500 employees in 1997 when the hiring freeze was in effect, now has 4,500.

The attorney general said there are two lessons to be learned from the case: The state should have moved quickly to institute race-neutral testing for jobs and promotions and “federal judges don’t make good department heads.”

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