Supreme Court Rules In Favor Of White Firefighters

The U.S. Supreme Court has wrapped up its term with a major decision on employment discrimination. The court ruled in favor of white firefighters in New Haven, Conn., who claimed that the city's decision to set aside the results of a promotion exam amounted to illegal race discrimination. The decision reversed a ruling by a federal appeals court panel that included Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We turn now to what it means that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a group of white firefighters in a major case involving discrimination in the workplace. The high court wrapped up its term with a ruling in the much-watched case where the firefighters claimed that a decision by New Haven, Connecticut to set aside the results of a promotion exam amounted to illegal race discrimination.

It was a five-to-four ruling, and added to the impact of the court's decision, it also reversed a ruling by a federal appeals court panel that included Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has details.

NINA TOTENBERG: New Haven decided to scrap the results of its firefighter promotion exam after no African-Americans scored high enough to be promoted to lieutenant or captain. The city feared it would be sued by minorities under a provision of the Civil Rights Act that treats such racially disproportionate results with great suspicion.

Yesterday, a divided Supreme Court ruled that the fear of litigation alone cannot justify an employer setting aside the results of a valid promotion exam. Writing for the five-member court majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that while the city of New Haven acted in good faith, all the evidence suggests it rejected the tests because the higher scoring candidates were white.

Such a racial rationale, the court said, cannot be justified under the Civil Rights Act. The court did not disturb the provision of the law that treats with suspicion any test that produces rationally disproportionate results, but the justices said that to set aside results for a test already given requires strong evidence that the test was either intentionally or unintentionally discriminatory. And no such evidence of discrimination existed in the New Haven test.

The test, said the court, was fair, job-related, and its detractors put forward no better test as an alternative. Therefore, the promotions must go forward.

In New Haven, white firefighters were overjoyed. Frank Ricci, the lead plaintiff in the case, is a dyslexic who practiced with flash cards and hired a tutor to help him study for the test.

Mr. FRANK RICCI (New Haven, Connecticut Firefighter): I think this is just proof positive that people should be treated as individuals and not statistics, and that won out at the Supreme Court today.

TOTENBERG: Although the white firefighters in New Haven won big yesterday, most experts said the impact of the ruling would be quite limited. University of Michigan law professor Richard Primus is so well respected in this area of the law that his work was cited by the court's majority and dissenting justices yesterday.

Professor RICHARD PRIMUS (Law, University of Michigan): It will probably make a big difference in a very small number of cases.

TOTENBERG: University of Washington Professor Eric Schnapper is another employment law expert.

Professor ERIC SCHNAPPER (Employment Law Expert, University of Washington): This case could be the Fred Thompson of the court's term - much anticipated, but quickly forgotten.

TOTENBERG: The reason is that most employers don't hire or promote by rigid adherence to test scores anymore. Part of the legacy of the civil rights law is that employers have had to rethink how they hire and promote, and whether requirements are really related to the job. Police and fire departments have often been the last to change, in part because promotion to rigid adherence to numbers avoids political interference, and in part because some places the type of test is established in the union contract.

In New Haven, for instance, the union contract requires the promotion test to be 60 percent multiple-choice, written exam. This despite the test that test designers agreed that minorities do less well on these pen-and-pencil exams and better on reality simulations. The message from yesterday's Supreme Court ruling is that if a municipality wants to change its testing procedures, it better do it before anyone takes the test. Michael Rosman of the conservative Center for Individual Rights.

Mr. MICHAEL ROSMAN (Center for Individual Rights): The basic change in reality is that employers will not be able to toss out the results of tests solely based upon disparate impact.

TOTENBERG: Professor Primus agrees.

Prof. PRIMUS: My guess is that a lot of municipalities are tonight and tomorrow going to look at the rules that they labor under today and see if there are ways that they can change them.

TOTENBERG: Just where the Supreme Court is on the question of race and testing remains a bit amorphous. There do not appear to be five votes on the court to invalidate the provision of the civil rights law at issue in yesterday's case. Rather, Justice Kennedy, the author of the opinion, charted a deliberate middle ground, narrowing the court's interpretation of the law. Justice Antonin Scalia warned ominously in a concurring opinion that the court would eventually have to confront to the question of whether the provision is constitutional.

In a rare oral dissent from the bench, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, using a rhetorical skewer, said of the conservative majority: The white firefighters understandably attract the court's empathy, even though they have no vested right to promotions and no person has been promoted in their place. It was a barbed reference to conservative criticism of President Obama's stated desire for Supreme Court nominees who have empathy.

Conservative opponents of Mr. Obama's nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, used the word empathy to mock her nomination, and she was, in fact, a member of the lower court panel whose decision was reversed by the Supreme Court yesterday.

But the high court majority made no mention of Sotomayor and no specific comment about the one paragraph opinion she joined and that the court reversed. While Sotomayor's critics are already seeking to use the decision to fan the flames of opposition to her nomination, a separate action taken by the Supreme Court yesterday is likely to aid the Democratic push for a confirmation vote this summer. The court announced yesterday it will rehear an important campaign finance case September 9th, nearly a month before the court had been scheduled to start hearing cases this fall.

The case involves a blistering attack documentary about Hillary Clinton produced by a conservative group for airing on cable TV just before the presidential primaries. The lower courts deemed the movie a long-form ad that, because it was financed with corporate contributions, could not be aired in the run-up to the primaries. Under the campaign finance law, the ad also could not be aired because its contributors were not disclosed.

The controversy initially came to the court on a narrow statutory question, but yesterday, the justices said they want their arguments about whether the court should reverse its own ruling of six years ago, upholding a key provision of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. If the court does reverse itself, campaign law experts say much of McCain-Feingold would be gutted.

Trevor Potter, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and general counsel to the McCain presidential campaign, was openly aghast at the court's decision to revisit its own ruling.

Mr. TREVOR POTTER (Former Chairman, Federal Election Commission): The idea that just because we've had two justices change, you would now turn around and overturn an entire half of the McCain-Feingold decision that was just decided by this court a couple of years ago seems pretty extraordinary.

TOTENBERG: Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito were not on the court when it upheld the McCain-Feingold law. The question now is whether their appointments to the court will flip it into holding a major part of the law unconstitutional.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

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

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.