Reporting from Washington — The Supreme Court ruled today that white firefighters who lost promotions in New Haven, Conn., were victims of illegal racial discrimination, holding that employers should not rely on “raw racial statistics” to set aside a fair test. The 5-4 decision clarifies the federal job-discrimination laws for employers, both private and public, and it says that the primary goal of the Civil Rights Act is to remove race as a factor in hiring and promotions. “No individual should face workplace discrimination based on race,” said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, overturning a ruling by Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor and two other judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York. The ruling says New Haven officials were wrong to set aside the results of a 2003 test after they learned no black firefighters were among the top scorers, and therefore, would not be eligible for a promotion to lieutenant or captain.
Kennedy said the test itself was valid and geared to the skills and knowledge needed by firefighters. “The process was open and fair,” he said. “The problem, of course, is that after the tests were completed, the raw racial results became the predominant rationale for the city’s refusal to certify the results.” He concluded that city officials had no “strong basis” for believing the test was flawed and unfair, and therefore, they had no legal basis for setting aside the results. The ruling is a clear win for the white firefighters, but it does not appear to make a sweeping change in the law. The justices did not say, for example, that it is unconstitutional for public employers ever to consider the racial makeup of their workforce. And it does not strike down the part of the Civil Rights Act that says employers should avoid job standards and tests that have a “disparate impact” on minorities. In today’s opinion, Kennedy concluded only that New Haven officials had no reason to fear a “disparate impact” lawsuit from black firefighters because their promotional test was fair and job-related. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, speaking for the liberal dissenters, said it was understandable the white firefighters would “attract the court’s empathy. But they had no vested right to a promotion, and no person has received a promotion in preference to them.” Ginsburg said the court’s conservative majority ignored the history of discrimination against blacks and Latinos in the New Haven Fire Department. In the early 1970s, these minorities made up nearly half of the city’s population, yet just one of 107 fire officers was black, she said. The New Haven case attracted wide attention for two reasons. It posed a conflict over whether employers should consider the racial effect of a promotional test. Sotomayor and the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals said the city acted out of a reasonable fear that its test had an unfair and illegal impact on minorities. In Ricci v. DeStefano, the court disagreed. The city “produced no strong evidence of a disparate-impact violation, and the city was not entitled to disregard the tests based solely on the racial disparity in the results,” Kennedy said. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined to form the majority.
Story by: LA Times