Supreme Court Reverses Sotomayor's Ruling Against New Haven Firefighters Who Claimed Reverse Discrimation

By Matt Cover | June 29, 2009 | 5:24 PM EDT

( – The Supreme Court--in a 5-4 decision--struck down a ruling issued by Judge Sonia Sotomayor and others, saying that the government must have a “strong basis in evidence” before discriminating based on race.

All nine justices agreed that Judge Sotomayor and the lower courts failed to consider this evidence, disagreeing only about whether it was strong enough to warrant discrimination.

The case Ricci v DeStefano involved firefighters from the city of New Haven, Conn., who had been denied promotions because very few minority candidates passed the promotion exams. City officials threw out the test results after being threatened with lawsuits by minority leaders.

The mostly white firefighters that had passed the test sued, arguing that New Haven officials had to provide evidence that the test was discriminatory in order to justify throwing out the results and denying the promotions. The Supreme Court agreed.
Writing for the court, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that regardless of the city’s intentions, it had made an illegal, race-based hiring decision.
“Whatever the City’s ultimate aim—however well intentioned or benevolent it might have seemed—the City made its employment decision because of race,” Kennedy wrote. “The City rejected the test results solely because the higher scoring candidates were white.”

Kennedy agreed that under some circumstances such a decision could be legal, but the city had to provide evidence that race-based discrimination was necessary to prevent minorities from being accidentally disadvantaged.

“We consider, therefore, whether the purpose to avoid disparate-impact liability excuses what otherwise would be prohibited disparate-treatment discrimination.”

The court found that no such evidence existed, saying that New Haven’s promotion process was “open and fair” and that Ricci and other firefighters should have been promoted.

“In other words, there is no evidence--let alone the required strong basis in evidence (to throw out the tests),” Kennedy explained. “No individual should face workplace discrimination based on race. As we have discussed at length, the process was open and fair.”

“The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed,” the Supreme Court ruled, overturning Sotomayor on the eve of her confirmation process.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the court’s dissenting liberal wing, argued that there was ample evidence to support the city’s actions. 

“I would hold that New Haven had ample cause to believe its selection process was flawed and not justified by business necessity.” Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964--the law in question--employers commit discrimination if their actions are not necessary for business or there is another way to avoid a racially discriminatory result. 

The lower courts, including Sotomayor’s 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, were wrong to focus on the city’s intent, Ginsburg said, agreeing with the majority that the issue was one of facts, not feelings.

“The lower courts focused on respondents’ “intent” rather than on whether respondents in fact had good cause to act,” Ginsburg wrote, adding “a remand for fresh consideration would be in order.”
Because the Supreme Court’s majority did not agree that the case should be sent back, Ginsburg stepped in to make the factual case Sotomayor and her lower court colleagues did not.
“But the (Supreme) Court has seen fit to preclude further proceedings. I therefore explain why, if final adjudication by this Court is indeed appropriate, New Haven should be the prevailing party.”
“(W)hat this case does not present is race-based discrimination in violation of Title VII (of the Civil Rights Act).”
Justice Samuel Alito said that New Haven’s discrimination against the white firefighters was a case of political correctness run amok and that the lower courts’ refusal to look at the facts had denied them justice.
“Petitioners were denied promotions for which they qualified because of the race and ethnicity of the firefighters who achieved the highest scores on the City’s exam. The District Court threw out their case on summary judgment,” Alito wrote. “The Court of Appeals then summarily affirmed that decision.”
“The dissent grants that petitioners’ situation is “unfortunate” and that they “understandably attract this Court’s sympathy.” But “sympathy” is not what petitioners have a right to demand. What they have a right to demand is evenhanded enforcement of the law. And that is what, until today’s decision, has been denied them.”