High court to hear firefighters' reverse discrimination lawsuit

By Chris Rizo | Apr 20, 2009

U.S. Supreme Court Building

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline)-The U.S. Supreme Court will consider this week whether a city can use race as a hiring or promotional standard for its employees.

The case comes from a 2004 lawsuit filed by 18 firefighters who allege they were denied a move up the command ranks of the New Haven, Conn., fire department because they were not members of a minority group.

The firefighters say their rights to equal protection as well as their protections under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were trampled when the city threw out their test scores on a promotional exam because no African-American candidate received a high enough score to also be considered for the same promotion.

For its part, the city has argued that allowing the test scores with such wide racial discrepancies could have violated federal law and opened the city to being sued by minority test-takers.

U.S. District Judge Janet Bond Arterton in New Haven sided with the city, saying none of the plaintiffs were harmed since no one was promoted. She said the decision to disregard the test results affected all applicants equally.

"New Haven did not race-norm the scores (to favor minority candidates), they simply decided to start over," the judge said. "While the evidence shows that race was taken into account in the decision not to certify the test results, the result was race-neutral: all the test results were discarded."

A three-judge panel of the New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision, and later refused a rehearing of the case. The plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Oral argument in the case is scheduled for Wednesday. Legal observers say the case could shape hiring and promoting standards in both the public and private sectors.

The case will be the first race-in-the-workplace case that the high court considers under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.

Roberts has said he opposes using race-based quotas.

In a 2007 decision that barred public school systems to take race into account to achieve or maintain integration, Roberts wrote: "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."

The city of Chicago last month paid a $6 million settlement to 75 white firefighters who said they lost promotions when their test scores were tossed out in 1986.

The case is Ricci v. DeStefano.

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