Supreme Court gives victory to white firefighters
Tags:Sonia Sotomayor,Supreme Court Of The United States,Racial DiscriminationBack to top
The Supreme Court handed a victory Monday to a group of white firefighters charging racial discrimination, while also giving some fodder to critics of President Barack Obama’s pending nominee for the high court, Judge Sonia Sotomayor.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for a court split 5-4 along ideological lines, reversed an appeals court ruling Sotomayor joined last year that rejected a claim that the City of New Haven, Conn., discriminated against white firefighters by throwing out a promotional exam after all the African-American firefighters who took it scored too poorly to be promoted.
“Whatever the City’s ultimate aim — however well intentioned or benevolent it might have seemed — the City made its employment decision because of race. The City rejected the test results solely because the higher scoring candidates were white,” Kennedy wrote on behalf of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
Kennedy said that allowing the city’s conduct would establish “a de facto quota system” where test results could be discarded whenever a particular racial group didn’t achieve the average score.
The case stems from a lieutenants’ promotion exam administered to New Haven, Conn., firefighters in 2003. After no African-American firefighters ranked highly, the city’s Civil Service Board threw out the results and decided not to make any immediate promotions.
Eighteen white firefighters, including one Hispanic, sued, claiming racial discrimination. The city countered that it was simply trying to avoid being sued by black firefighters argued that the test was unfairly skewed.
A district court judge sided with the city and tossed the suit out before trial. Last year, a three-judge Second Circuit panel, including Sotomayor, backed that decision.
Critics said Sotomayor’s ruling amounted to judicial activism and indicated her penchant for “identity politics.” Others, including her supporters, said she was simply following established rules. Several states entered the case arguing that local officials should have the flexibility to discard such an exam without court intervention.
Kennedy and the justices in the majority appeared to join those critics who considered Sotomayor’s panel unduly dismissive of the case. He noted that the appeals court initially rejected the white firefighters’ appeal with “a one-paragraph, unpublished summary order” and later replaced the order with a “nearly identical, one-paragraph per curiam opinion.”
Writing for the four dissenting justices, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg complained that the ruling means that New Haven, with a minority population totaling almost 60 percent, “must today be served — as it was in the days of undisguised discrimination — by a fire department in which member of racial and ethnic minorities are rarely seen in command decisions.”
“The white firefighters who scored high on New Haven’s promotional exams understandably attract this Court’s sympathy. But they had no vested right to promotion,” Ginsburg wrote in a dissent joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Stephen Breyer. Ginsburg said the majority’s opinion “ignores substantial evidence of multiple flaws in the tests New Haven used. The Court similarly fails to acknowledge the better tests used in other cities, which have yielded less racially skewed outcomes.”
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