The Supreme Court appeared divided Wednesday over whether a Connecticut city’s decision to scrap a promotion exam for firefighters because too few minorities passed violates the civil rights of top-scoring white applicants.
As is often the case with closely fought social issues at the court, Justice Anthony Kennedy appeared to hold the key to the outcome. He seemed concerned that New Haven, Conn., scuttled the test after it learned that no African-Americans and only two Hispanic firefighters were likely to be promoted based on the results.
“It looked at the results and classified successful and unsuccessful applicants by race,” said Kennedy, who often frowns on racial classifications, yet is not as opposed to drawing distinctions on the basis of race as his more conservative colleagues.
But where Kennedy saw shades of gray, the rest of the court seemed to view the case clearly in terms of black and white.
The court’s conservative bloc seemed inclined to side with the white firefighters. “You had some applicants who were winners and their promotion was set aside,” Justice Antonin Scalia said.
The liberals indicated that New Haven did nothing wrong by throwing out the test over concerns that it had a “disparate impact” on minorities in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
A ruling against the city, Justice David Souter said, could leave employers in a “damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation.” Souter’s comment reflected the concern of business interests who said in a court filing that a decision in favor of the white firefighters would place employers in an untenable position of having to choose whether to face lawsuits from disgruntled white or minority workers.
The firefighters’ dispute is one of two major civil rights cases on the court’s calendar in the next two weeks. The other deals with a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.
Underlying both cases are broader questions about racial progress and the ongoing need for legal protections from discrimination for minorities, especially after the election of President Barack Obama.
The discrimination lawsuit brought by 20 white firefighters — one also is Hispanic — challenges New Haven’s decision to throw out promotion exams for lieutenants and captains in its fire department.
The plaintiffs, in their dark blue dress uniforms, posed for photographs Wednesday morning in front of the court.
The city argues that if it had gone ahead with the promotions based on the test results, it would have risked a lawsuit claiming that the exams had a “disparate impact” on minorities in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The federal appeals court in New York upheld a lower court ruling dismissing the lawsuit.
The case has drawn input from interest groups across the ideological spectrum. The Obama administration has weighed in mainly on the city’s side, although it recommends allowing the lawsuit to proceed on a limited basis.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.