Court Rules for White and Hispanic Firefighters, Reversing Sotomayor Decision

"The Supreme Court today correctly held that race-based employment decisions must be justified by facts, not fear," Hatch said in a written statement. "These firefighters, who worked long and hard for it, were denied the chance for promotion because of their race. In the 21st century, race discrimination requires more justification than the fear of being sued. The Second Circuit should have recognized the serious and unique issues this case raised and given it the thorough treatment it deserved."

'The Fired Isn't Going to Discriminate'

When firefighters battle a raging blaze, they can be sure that at least one thing will treat them all equally.

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

But in New Haven, Vargas, who is Hispanic, and 19 white firefighters said that is where the equal treatment ends, and discrimination begins. They had alleged that they were denied promotions because the city gave preferential treatment to blacks.

Marcarelli, who is white, got the top score on a promotion exam in 2003 and was first in line for captain. But when the city reviewed all the test results, it found that the pass rate for black candidates was about half the corresponding rate for white candidates. None of the black firefighters scored well enough for an immediate promotion. As a result, the city threw out the test results.

In New Haven, city officials knew they were headed for a catch 22 when the test results came back. If the city certified the test results, it was confident it could expect a lawsuit from the black firefighters. But when it threw out the test results, it instead got a lawsuit from mostly white firefighters.

Blacks make up about a third of New Haven's 221 firefighters, 15 percent are officers -- eight of 42 lieutenants and one of 18 captains.

The case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments in April. The decision could affect the hiring and promotion practices for millions of civil servants.

The New Haven case is Chief Justice John G. Roberts' first look at the use of race in civil servant hiring and promotion.

For decades, people of color across the country have filed scores of discrimination lawsuits to challenge testing in fire departments, police departments and public schools.

Civil Rights, Reverse Discrimination and Test Scores

New Haven officials and some of the city's black firefighters argued that and less discriminatory alternatives -- such as oral exams -- should be used rather than written tests. "Written tests aren't the best to judge a person on how they will perform their jobs," said Gary Tinney, a black firefighter in New Haven.

But whites and Hispanics like Vargas fought back. Opponents have used civil rights laws to argue reverse discrimination. And they have found some success: The city of Chicago recently settled a major case with white firefighters for $7.5 million.

Vargas 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."

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