Supreme Court Rules in Favor of White Firefighters

The Supreme Court yesterday ruled in a razor slim 5-4 decision in favor of a group of white firefighters from New Haven, Connecticut on a Title VII race case that has far reaching impact on race, sex, and ethnicity employment cases. The decision (see PDF,), written by Justice Anthony Kennedy for Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Alito, and Thomas, reversed a ruling that had been dismissed by a district court and a panel of the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which included Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.

The case dealt with a promotion exam administered to the firefighters in 2003. When no African-Americans ranked high enough to be promoted, the City of New Haven invalidated the test results because the absolute adverse racial impact put in question its validity and indicated potential racial bias. Eighteen white firefighters sued.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg authored the dissent on behalf of Justices Souter, Stevens, and Breyer, and felt so strongly about it she read the dissent from the bench. She said, the Court’s majority opinion “ignores substantial evidence of multiple flaws in the tests New Haven used. The Court similarly fails to acknowledge the better tests used in other cities, which have yielded less racially skewed outcomes.” Later in her dissenting opinion, Ginsburg wrote the majority of the Court made a choice in their decision “that breaks the promise of Griggs that groups long denied equal opportunity would not be held back by tests ‘fair in form, but discriminatory in operation.'”

In his majority decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “Whatever the City’s ultimate aim – however well intentioned or benevolent it might have seemed – the City rejected the test results solely because the higher scoring candidates were white.”

“Unfortunately, this is just one more decision by the Roberts Court undermining Title VII and the struggle to end racial and sexual discrimination,” said Feminist Majority President Eleanor Smeal. “Justice Ginsburg stated in her dissent, ‘the Court’s order and opinion, I anticipate, will not have staying power.’ Remember, Ginsburg’s dissent in the Lilly Ledbetter wage discrimination case is now the law of the land,” said Smeal.

In a statement released after the decision, People For the American Way Executive Vice President Marge Baker stated, “Title VII dramatically improved the diversity of police and fire departments that previously had few, if any, minorities or women. Under the restrictions put in place today, it will be much more difficult for these departments to continue to build a diverse workforce.”

Yesterday’s ruling is not expected to derail the Supreme Court confirmation hearing of Judge Sotomayor, although it will likely be discussed at length at her Senate confirmation hearings, which are scheduled for mid-July .


United States Supreme Court 6/29/09, PFAW 6/29/09; Interview with Eleanor Smeal 6/30/09

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