"Every day I go to work, I gotta pin this lieutenant's badge on me, it reminds me I got screwed out of a captain's badge because of the color of my skin," said Matt Marcarelli, a 15-year veteran of the New Haven, Conn., fire department.
Marcarelli got the top score on a promotions exam. He was first in line for captain. But not everyone did so well.
In fact, not one of the 28 black candidates, in a field of 118, scored high enough to be promoted. For New Haven, that was a problem.
"It looked like the exam might have been discriminatory against some of the minority test takers. And that was certainly a red flag for the city under the law," said Victor Bolden, an attorney for the city of New Haven.
New Haven officials and some of the city's black firefighters argue that written tests are not the best tests to use and that less discriminatory alternatives -- such as oral exams -- are available.
"Written tests aren't the best way to judge a person on how they will perform at their job," said black firefighter Gary Tinney.
New Haven city officials knew they were headed for a catch 22 when the test results came back.
The city decided to throw out the test results, fearing a lawsuit by the black firefighters. They got one anyway -- from the white and Hispanic firefighters, who said New Haven's decision discriminated against them.
The firefighters lost in court. They appealed, and that's how this case got to Sotomayor, who is currently a federal appeals judge.
What has all of Washington talking is what happened next: Sotomayor and two fellow appellate judges dismissed the white firefighters' claims -- and 2,000 pages of court papers and filings -- in a one-paragraph ruling.
"We are not unsympathetic to the plaintiffs' expression of frustration," but the firefighters who filed the case don't have a "viable" claim under the law, the opinion said.
Conservatives, like Wendy Long of the Judicial Confirmation Network, have decried the ruling.
"Judge Sotomayor and her colleagues didn't engage in any legal analysis. They didn't grapple with these issues," Long charged.
"It leads one to think that Judge Sotomayor and her two colleagues who were involved in the case simply wanted to bury the claims of the New Haven firefighters."
On the next appeal to the full 13-member court, the judges were more conflicted. Six sharply objected to the short, unsigned opinion, saying it failed to examine any of the law.
"The opinion contains no reference whatsoever to the constitutional claims at the core of this case," wrote Judge Jose Cabranes, a Clinton appointee and long-time mentor to Sotomayor, in a scathing dissent. "This perfunctory disposition rests uneasily with the weighty issues presented by this appeal."
Sotomayor's supporters defended the one-paragraph opinion, saying the law was clear and that, procedurally, the appellate panel had done nothing wrong with its summary order. In a conference call organized by the White House, several said brief orders are not unusual in those circumstances.