Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor might be off the hot seat as her confirmation hearings wind to a close, but one firefighter today offered a parting shot when he alleged the government and legal system -- namely an appeals panel that included Sotomayor -- "didn't care" about his discrimination case.
Ben Vargas, a Hispanic New Haven, Conn., firefighter joined a group of white firefighters in a lawsuit against the city, Ricci v. DeStefano, claiming the city had discriminated against them by not granting them promotions when it threw out promotion tests because black firefighters didn't perform well on them.
Sotomayor and a lower court panel ruled that the firefighters were not unfairly denied promotions, but the Supreme Court last month reversed that decision.
"The focus should not have been on me being Hispanic," said Vargas. "The focus should have been on what I did to earn a promotion to captain, and how my own government and some courts responded to that. In short they didn't care."
"I think it important for you to know what I did, that I played by the rules and then endured a long process of asking the courts to endorse those rules," he told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In questioning earlier in the day, Republican senators including John Kyl of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina both pressed Sotomayor on the Ricci v. Stefano decision.
Sotomayor today told the lawmakers that the panel's decision needs to be placed "back in context," saying that the issue at hand in the case was whether "a member of a disparately impacted group had a right under existing precedent to bring a lawsuit."
She explained during earlier exchanges this week that it was not an affirmative action case, and that the issue at hand was very narrow.
But Graham said that in the Ricci case, "you missed one of the biggest issues in the country, or you took a pass."
As senators moved into a third round of questions, the top Republican on the committee again asked about the case, prompting a rare moment of apparent frustration from Sotomayor, who has thus far responded to senators' queries in measured tones.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., asked Sotomayor if she failed to show "courage" in her initial decision, which was only one paragraph long, and to "discuss the issue openly" with "depth" in her opinion.
"And wouldn't we have been better off if the case had been handled in that fashion?" he continued.
"Sir, no. I didn't show a lack of courage," Sotomayor shot back. "The court's decision was clear in both instances on the basis for the decision it was a thorough, complete discussion of the issues as presented to the district court. The circuit court's ruling was clear in both instances. No, I did not lack courage."
In his testimony, Vargas said he's proud of the Puerto Rican heritage he shares with Sotomayor and congratulated her on her nomination, but expressed his strong disagreement with her decision in the case.
Noting that he prepared extensively for the promotion exam for months, he said, "I was shocked when I was not rewarded for this hard work and sacrifice. But I actually was penalized for it."
"I became not Ben Vargas, the fire lieutenant who proved himself qualified to be captain, but a racial statistic."