The Supreme Court handed a victory Monday to a group of white firefighters charging racial discrimination, while also giving some fodder to critics of President Barack Obama’s pending nominee for the high court, Judge Sonia Sotomayor.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for a court split 5-4 along ideological lines, reversed an appeals court ruling Sotomayor joined last year that rejected a claim that the City of New Haven, Conn., discriminated against white firefighters by throwing out a promotional exam after all the African-American firefighters who took it scored too poorly to be promoted.
“Whatever the City’s ultimate aim — however well intentioned or benevolent it might have seemed — the City made its employment decision because of race. The City rejected the test results solely because the higher scoring candidates were white,” Kennedy wrote on behalf of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
Kennedy said that allowing the city’s conduct would establish “a de facto quota system” where test results could be discarded whenever a particular racial group didn’t achieve the average score.
The case stems from a lieutenants’ promotion exam administered to New Haven, Conn., firefighters in 2003. After no African-American firefighters ranked highly, the city’s Civil Service Board threw out the results and decided not to make any immediate promotions.
Eighteen white firefighters, including one Hispanic, sued, claiming racial discrimination. The city countered that it was simply trying to avoid being sued by black firefighters argued that the test was unfairly skewed.
A district court judge sided with the city and tossed the suit out before trial. Last year, a three-judge Second Circuit panel, including Sotomayor, backed that decision.