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Judge ends historic desegregation order for Buffalo firefighters

Convinced that Buffalo's hiring practices discriminated against minorities and women, U.S. District Judge John T. Curtin ordered the city to desegregate its fire department.

Forty years later, Curtin's landmark order is coming to an end.

In a decision earlier this week, the federal judge now handling the civil rights case found the city in compliance and dissolved Curtin's 1979 order.

"This unequivocally closes all elements of the case," said Adam W. Perry, a lawyer for the city. "It is the absolute last vestiges of the litigation that started in the early 1970s."

Lawyers on both sides, in seeking an end to the civil rights case, pointed to new hiring practices that over the years resulted in a more diverse fire department.

In April of last year, the department's overall workforce was 24 percent African-American, 5.5 percent Hispanic and 5 percent female. That compares with a workforce that was 1 percent black and included no Hispanics or women in 1974.

The court’s oversight stemmed from a U.S. Department of Justice civil rights complaint against the city and Curtin’s eventual declaration that the fire department’s hiring practices were discriminatory.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. Vilardo, who took over the case when Curtin retired, ended a similar court order against the city's police department last year.

From the beginning, Curtin's goal was to use his "Final Decree and Order" to develop a fire department with a percentage of minority employees equal to the percentage of minorities in the city's overall workforce.

"But the label 'final' did not mean the case ended there," Vilardo said in his decision last week. "On the contrary, nearly 40 years later, the case is still pending as the parties worked to achieve the goal that Judge Curtin set."

One of the results of that work was a minority-recruitment plan that required half of all new firefighters in the city be minorities.

Over the next 10 years, the city hired hundreds of blacks, Hispanics and women and, in 1989, Curtin ruled that the city had "substantially complied" with his orders.

When Vilardo took over, he continued to monitor the fire department but, in 2017, reduced his oversight to one outstanding issue – the selection of fire lieutenants.

At the time, Men of Color Helping All Society (MOCHA), a group of African-American firefighters that was party to the suit, raised concerns about the process for picking lieutenants.

The group later dropped its objections, paving the way for the city and federal government to jointly seek an end to the case, which started in 1974.

"Clearly, the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division agreed that the City of Buffalo was in full compliance," Perry said Friday.

Perry, who took over the case decades after it began, said he never expected it would take this long to end and noted that the Justice Department's handling of the case often varied from one administration to another.

When he started on the case, Bill Clinton was president.

"It's a career achievement to have the opportunity to be involved in this," he said of the landmark case.

Perry said Vilardo expedited a resolution to the case when he ordered the city and Department of Justice to file joint status reports on progress in the case. He said the judge's order required the two sides to work together on settling any outstanding differences.

The last of those differences – the process for selecting fire lieutenants – was settled late last year.

"Accordingly, the court should dissolve the 1979 order, as the city has now achieved compliance with its last remaining aspect," the city and DOJ said in their final status report in December.

In ending the case, Vilardo finished the work Curtin started more than four decades ago.

Curtin’s police and fire desegregation decrees are widely viewed as among the most important decisions of his 48 years on the bench. He also oversaw the desegregation of Buffalo’s public schools.

Curtin died two years ago.

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