Supreme Court Sides With White Firefighters
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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