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U.S. Supreme Court sides with white firefighters in race bias case

By Chris Rizo | Jun 29, 2009

U.S. Supreme Court building

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline)-The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that white firefighters were unfairly denied promotions because of their race.

The case comes from a 2004 lawsuit filed by 18 firefighters who allege they were denied a move up the command ranks of the New Haven, Conn., fire department because they were not members of a minority group.

The firefighters said their rights to equal protection as well as their protections under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were trampled when the city threw out their test scores on a promotional exam because no African-American candidate received a high enough score to also be considered for the same promotion.

The U.S. Supreme Court sided with the firefighters.

"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," Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court's 5-4 majority.

For its part, the city argued that allowing the test scores with such wide racial discrepancies could have violated federal law and opened the city to being sued by minority test-takers.

"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," Kennedy wrote.

At trial, U.S. District Judge Janet Bond Arterton in New Haven sided with the city, saying none of the plaintiffs were harmed since no one was promoted. She said the decision to disregard the test results affected all applicants equally.

"New Haven did not race-norm the scores (to favor minority candidates), they simply decided to start over," the judge said. "While the evidence shows that race was taken into account in the decision not to certify the test results, the result was race-neutral: all the test results were discarded."

A three-judge panel of the New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision, and later refused a rehearing of the case.

In a statement, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said the decision should not reflect poorly on President Barack Obama's pending Supreme Court nominee, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

"It would be wrong to use today's decision to criticize Judge Sonia Sotomayor, who sat on the panel of the Second Circuit that heard this case but did not write its unanimous opinion," Leahy said. "Judge Sotomayor and the lower court panel did what judges are supposed to do, they followed precedent. It is notable that four justices would have upheld the Second Circuit's ruling, including the retiring Justice Souter, who Judge Sotomayor is nominated to replace."

The city of Chicago in March paid a $6 million settlement to 75 white firefighters who said they lost promotions when their test scores were tossed out in 1986.

The case is Ricci v. DeStefano, No. 07-1428

From Legal Newsline: Reach staff reporter Chris Rizo at

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