Precedent setting decision flows from discrimination against white firefighters in New Haven, Connecticut.
Washington (30 June 2009) - The United States Supreme Court, in a closely watched case, ruled Monday that white firefighters who lost promotions in New Haven, Connecticut., were victims of illegal racial discrimination and that employers should not rely on "raw racial statistics" to set aside a fair test of their merits.
The decision, a narrow 5-4 ruling, is expected to reverberate through political debates across the U.S. and beyond when programs designed to tackle workplace discrimination are discussed.
The ruling is also expected to influence hearings on Capitol Hill to confirm Sonia Sotomayor, the first candidate nominated by President Barack Obama to sit on the Supreme Court. Sotomayor, along with two other U.S. Court of Appeals judges in New York, wrote the New Haven ruling.
Clarifies Civil Rights Act
The top court's ruling clarifies federal job discrimination laws for both private and public employers. It also specifies that the primary goal of the U.S. Civil Rights Act is to remove race as a factor in hiring and promotions.
"No individual should face workplace discrimination based on race," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the court's majority.
Kennedy said New Haven officials were wrong to set aside the results of a 2003 test after learning that no black firefighters were among the top scorers and therefore would not be eligible for 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. 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 wrote.
How much impact?
While a clear win for the white firefighters, some say the ruling may not lead to sweeping changes in existing law.
The justices did not, for example, declare it was unconstitutional for public employers ever to consider the racial makeup of their workforce. Nor did they strike down a key portion of the Civil Rights Act declaring that employers should avoid job standards and tests that have a "disparate impact" on minorities.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, speaking for the liberal dissenters on the court, said it was understandable the 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," she wrote.
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 noted.
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