Thorny firefighter-promotion case back in Supreme Court

The Supreme Court plunged back into the legal fight over firefighters, test scores and accusations of racial discrimination on Wednesday, this time to decide when those who say they were victims of discrimination must file a lawsuit.

In June, the justices ruled for white firefighters who were denied promotions even though they earned top scores on an exam. Justice Sonia Sotomayor was sharply criticized during her Senate hearing because, as a judge, she had ruled against the white firefighters.

Now, the court will hear an appeal from blacks who said Chicago’s test for firefighters discriminated against them. However, the issue is one of timing and procedure. Must civil-rights plaintiffs file a discrimination suit shortly after the test was given, or later after it was used for hiring new firefighters?

The justices also agreed to clarify part of the anti-terrorism law and to decide whether human-rights activists in this country can be prosecuted for providing “expert advice” or political training to a group such as the Kurdistan Worker’s Party in Turkey which has been designed a terrorist organization.

That case grew out of an 11-year legal battle in Los Angeles over a law that makes it a crime to provide “expert advice” and other similar “material support” to a terrorist group. Since 2001, the government has convicted several men under this law for undergoing “training” with al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

Earlier this year, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down parts of the anti-terrorism law because its references to “expert advice” or “training” could include a lecture on how to resolve disputes peacefully.

“We don’t make the country safer by criminalizing those who advocate nonviolent means …. or by making it a crime for a human rights group in the U.S. to provide human rights training,” said Georgetown University law professor David Cole, who represented the challengers.

But U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan successfully persuaded the Supreme Court to review this ruling. She said the government needs broad power to prosecute those who knowingly help a terrorist group, regardless of their motives.

The case is Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project.

The Chicago firefighters case concerns the same civil-rights issue that gained so much attention during the summer. It is illegal for employers to use a test that has a “disparate impact” on minorities, unless it can be justified as a business necessity.

Four years ago, a federal judge in Chicago ruled the city had discriminated against black candidates because its test given in the mid-1990s had an unfair and “disparate impact” on minorities. White test takers were five times more likely than blacks to qualify for a firefighting job, the judge found.

But last year, the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned this ruling and threw out the suit because the black applicants waited more than a year to challenge the test results. “That was a fatal mistake,” wrote Judge Richard Posner. The federal civil rights law says suits must be filed within 300 days of an unlawful employment practice.

The court agreed to hear several other new cases, including whether the Miranda rule is triggered when a suspect voluntary talks to the police and another on whether Public Health Service doctors can be sued personally for providing negligent medical care to immigrants in custody.

(c) 2009, Tribune Co. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.