Will Race Discrimination Ruling Burn Sonia Sotomayor?

"Judge Sotomayor expressed real sympathy for the plaintiff and noted how hard he had worked on this, but said that they were essentially bound by previous decisions in the area," said William Marshall, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law. "I think it's important to recognize that her instincts in the case were one of restraint."

Hispanic firefighter Ben Vargas, a member of the group that sued the city, said civil rights laws should be used to protect his potential promotion.

"The civil rights laws, they have nothing in there which state preferential treatment. The civil rights laws are there for everybody; all American citizens have the same exact rights," he said.

The Supreme Court agreed to consider the case, and in arguments last month, the justices indicated they might rule against the city and give the white and Hispanic firefighters another chance.

Black firefighters say that the stakes in their case couldn't be higher.

"If we lose this," New Haven firefighter Octavius Dawson said, "the implication is catastrophic. I mean, where does it end? Not just with the fire department. Police department, education, who knows where it could end?"

But aggrieved firefighters say they simply want to take race out of the equation and be treated the same across the board.

"The fire isn't going to discriminate against a person whether he's black, white or Hispanic," Vargas said. "It's going to treat that person the same way."

The Supreme Court is expected to hand down its decision before Sotomayor's Senate confirmation hearings begin.

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