Supreme Court Sides With White Firefighters

The Supreme Court on Monday wrapped up its term with a long-awaited decision, ruling in favor of white firefighters who had complained that the city of New Haven, Conn., had discriminated against them on the basis of race by refusing to certify promotion exam scores. The ruling reversed a decision that high court nominee Sonia Sotomayor endorsed as an appeals court judge.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, host:

And I'm David Greene. The Supreme Court wrapped up its term today with a long-awaited decision. The justices ruled in favor of white firefighters who had complained that the city of New Haven, Connecticut, in refusing to certify promotion exam scores, had discriminated against them on the basis of race. The justices, though, did not rule in another big case. And we'll get to that one in a moment. But right now, we have NPR's Nina Totenberg on the line at the Supreme Court. Hi, Nina.

NINA TOTENBERG: Hi, David.

GREENE: Nina, tell us - when we look at this firefighters case, about the court's reasoning.

TOTENBERG: Well, let's recap for a minute what happened. The city of New Haven gave a promotion exam. Although black firefighters and white firefighters both passed, the black firefighters did not rank high enough for any of them to be promoted, so all the promotions were going to be white. The city was terrified that it would be sued by the black firefighters under the civil rights law which treats with great suspicion such disproportionate test results. And so it decided to dump the test results and redesign the test and have a new test, and that decision was subsequently upheld by a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, and one of the judges on that panel was Judge Sonia Sotomayor, now appointed to the Supreme Court.

Well, today, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed that decision and said that an employer has to have a basis - a strong basis in evidence to believe it will be subject to what's called the disparate impact liability suit if it fails to take race-conscious, discriminatory action. All the evidence, the court said, that the city rejected the test results because the - was that - the city rejected the test results because the higher scoring candidates were white, and without some other justification, this express, race-based decision is prohibited under the court's reading of the statute. And Justice Kennedy wrote for a five-justice court.

GREENE: They said they should not have thrown out those test scores.

TOTENBERG: They said they should not have thrown out those test scores.

GREENE: What was the dissenting voice from the court?

TOTENBERG: Well, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, reading her dissent from the bench - and it was a blistering dissent - she stuck the knife into the conservative majority, saying that the white firefighters, quote, "understandably attract the court's empathy, but they had no vested right to promotion, and no person received a promotion in preference to them." She accused the court majority, basically, of undermining the whole purpose of the civil rights law and undoing a landmark decision of the court of more - of decades ago.

GREENE: Well, if we're talking about landmarks, what's the practical effect, here? I mean, does it go in the other direction? Do now institutions like fire departments not have to take race into account at all when they're thinking about promotions?

TOTENBERG: Well, if they are going to - if they have - if they give a test and it has a hugely disproportionate effect racially, they're going to have to jump through a lot of hoops to undo the results of that test. They're going to have to prove that there was something more than disproportionate racial test results. They're going to have to prove that there was something wrong with the test, or - then they're going to have to prove that a better test was available. If they want to redo it, it's going to be very difficult.

GREENE: Well, very, very briefly, we had another case. It involved a film about Hillary Clinton. The court delayed this case until the next term. What happened there?

TOTENBERG: This was a rather narrow case involving campaign finance and how the movie about Hillary Clinton was financed and whether it could be shown because it used corporate contributions. And the court didn't decide the issue, and instead ordered the case re-argued September 9th with the specific question of whether the McCain-Feingold law should be held unconstitutional. And it was upheld just six years ago by the court.

GREENE: Let me just ask you briefly, Nina. How did the decisions that we got today affect the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, which we're going to be hearing a lot about?

TOTENBERG: Well, obviously, the - her - the decision that she can - she was part of in the firefighters case has been reversed. So that will be used against her. On the other hand, Republicans are going to have a very hard time saying, well, we'll get her sworn in by the first Monday in October because now this huge campaign finance case is going to be argued September 9th, and they will undoubtedly - the court would, I'm sure, like a full court to do that. And Democrats will use that to push for quick confirmation.

GREENE: We'll have to stop there. Thanks, Nina.

TOTENBERG: Thank you.

GREENE: That's NPR's Nina Totenberg.

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Court Topples Sotomayor Ruling In Firefighter Case

Sonia Sotomayor i i

The 5-4 ruling means that the federal appeals court opinion on the New Haven firefighters that was endorsed by Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor (above) will not stand. Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Getty Images
Sonia Sotomayor

The 5-4 ruling means that the federal appeals court opinion on the New Haven firefighters that was endorsed by Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor (above) will not stand.

Getty Images

The city of New Haven, Conn., violated the rights of 20 firefighters when it threw out a promotion exam because too many whites and not enough minorities qualified, the Supreme Court ruled Monday, reversing a decision by an appellate panel that included high court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.

The justices decided in a 5-4 vote that the city's action violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

The justices also said the city failed to demonstrate its primary argument for invalidating the test — that certifying the results would result in unintentional injury to minority firefighters.

"Fear of litigation alone cannot justify an employer's reliance on race to the detriment of individuals who passed the examinations and qualified for promotions," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority's opinion. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas joined in the majority opinion.

In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the white firefighters "understandably attract this court's sympathy. But they had no vested right to promotion. Nor have other persons received promotions in preference to them."

Justices Stephen Breyer, David Souter and John Paul Stevens signed on to Ginsburg's dissent, which she read aloud in court.

Kennedy's opinion made only passing reference to the work of Sotomayor and the other two judges on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals who upheld a lower court ruling in favor of New Haven.

After the decision, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said everyone involved in the case was acting in good faith — but the city's decision to invalidate the test results was based on 40 years of litigation involving promotion exams.

He referred to retiring Justice Souter's remarks during oral arguments in the case, saying New Haven was in a no-win situation.

"At this moment I must admit that I well recall Justice Souter's comment from the oral argument that the city found itself in a 'damned if you do, damned if you don't situation,' " DeStefano said.

DeStefano said both groups — the minority and the white firefighters — are seeking a system that is fair, and he concurred with Scalia and Ginsburg that the issue is likely to be before the court again.

But Frank Ricci, one of the white firefighters who filed suit, praised the court's decision that he was unfairly denied a promotion because of race. He praised the other firefighters who joined the lawsuit not knowing if they qualified for promotion.

"It's phenomenal that everybody stepped forward and took this position because the exams were valid, and if you work hard you can succeed in America," he said.

The court also released other decisions in the last day of its term before the summer break and the last workday for Souter. In other actions:

• The court issued an order that arguments will be heard Sept. 9 to decide whether the 90-minute film Hillary: The Movie, produced by a conservative political group, should be considered a documentary or a long political advertisement.

Citizens United made the film, which is critical of Clinton, when Clinton was running for the Democratic presidential nomination. The group wanted to make the film available to cable subscribers on demand without complying with federal campaign laws. It also wanted to run ads for the movie.

• The justices refused to hear a Hollywood complaint against a new digital video recording system. The justices said they will not disturb a federal appeals court ruling that Cablevision Systems Corp.'s remote-storage DVR does not violate copyright laws.

For consumers, the action means that Cablevision and perhaps other cable system operators soon will be able to offer DVR service without the need for a box in their homes. The remote-storage unit exists on computer servers maintained by a cable provider.

• The court ruled that New York state can investigate national banks for discriminatory lending practices and other violations if a court issues subpoenas.

The case stems from a New York case in which the state's attorney general was investigating whether national banks were offering lower mortgage rates to whites than to black and Hispanic borrowers. The attorney general requested more information from those banks, including Citibank, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo, but the banks went to court to block the request. They argued that since they were subject to federal law, branch banks were not subject to state lending laws.

The case resulted in a lawsuit supported by 49 states, arguing that only they have the resources to adequately enforce consumer protection laws.

• The justices refused to hear a case involving the state of Missouri's attempt to bar protests near funerals. The state enacted the law aimed at members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., who regularly picket the funerals of military service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. They claim God allows soldiers to be killed as punishment for the country's sins.

• The court also refused to hear a case involving a school district that is blocking a group of Christian students from forming a campus-based Bible club.

The case stems from a 2001 lawsuit filed by students who wanted to form the Truth Bible Club at Kentridge High School in Washington. The Kent School District blocked formation of the club by refusing to charter it.

From NPR and wire service reports

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