In a decision that could have sweeping impact on employers across the nation, the Supreme Court ruled today that white and Hispanic firefighters in New Haven, Conn., were unfairly denied promotions because of their race, reversing a decision that Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor endorsed as an appeals court judge.
Splitting down ideological lines, the court ruled 5-4 that New Haven violated a landmark civil rights law when the city threw out the results of a promotions exam after it was determined that none of the black firefighters who took the test scored well enough to be promoted.
The court's decision will make it harder for employees to sue if they believe employers have made decisions that have a discriminatory impact on them, but are in other respects race-neutral and fair on their face -- as the Court said these promotions exams were.
"I think the import of the decision is that cities cannot bow to politics and pressure and lobbying by special interest groups, or act to achieve racial quotas," said Karen Torre, the attorney for the firefighters. "If the test is job-related, especially in a dangerous occupation, then the fact that more African Americans pass, or more Hispanics pass, or more whites pass, isn't sufficient grounds to ignore the results of an occupational test."
The case took on an extra layer of significance when President Obama nominated Sotomayor to fill the upcoming vacancy on the Supreme Court. Sotomayor, currently a federal appeals judge, sat on a panel that dismissed the white firefighters' claims -- and 2,000 pages of court papers in filings -- in a one-paragraph ruling.
But Sotomayor's defenders quickly pointed out that the court's four liberals did not agree. They argued that the court is reshaping civil rights law with today's ruling, something Sotomayor could not have done as an appeals court judge. However, those arguments were somewhat diminished, since it appears even the liberal justices would have sent the case back to the lower court and ordered a rethinking of its summary decision.
Congress could now step in and change the civil rights laws and overrule this decision, but it would be a politically difficult endeavor because the white firefighters gained a bit of sympathy for their reverse discrimination claims.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said New Haven had violated the landmark Title VII Civil Rights Act of 1991. The city had no good reason to throw out the test results, he said, even if it was threatened by lawsuits by the black firefighters. It's decision to do so, he wrote, amounted to a "de facto quota system," where it was making decisions based on "raw racial statistics."
"We conclude that race-based action like the City's in this case is impermissible under Title VII unless the employer can demonstrate a strong basis in evidence that, had it not take the action, it would have been liable under the disparate-impact statute," Kennedy wrote. "In light of our ruling under the statutes, we need not reach the question whether respondents' actions may have violated the Equal Protection Clause."
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg read an impassioned dissent from the bench, in which she chastised the Court for a decision that she said will do "untold" damage to civil rights laws.