In one of its most significant rulings on race this decade, the Supreme Court found June 29 that white firefighters denied promotions because their minority colleagues did not also qualify for advancement were discriminated against because of their race.
The case-- Ricci v. DeStefano--dates back six years ago when the city of New Haven, Conn., scrapped a test that white firefighters reportedly passed at a 50 percent greater rate than blacks. Because performance on the test was the basis for promotion, none of the blacks in the department would have advanced had the city accepted the results, leaving New Haven vulnerable to a lawsuit. In making its decision, the city cited Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits employers from using tests that have a "disparate impact" or disproportionately exclude applicants of certain races.
In a 5-4 ruling, however, the high court rejected New Haven's reasoning, arguing that, "Fear of litigation alone cannot justify an employer's reliance on race to the detriment of individuals who passed the examinations and qualified for promotions."
Legal analysts predict that the decision could generate a bevy of "disparate impact" lawsuits, as the court's ruling makes it harder for employers to discard tests that adversely affect protected groups such as women and minorities. To prevent such lawsuits, employers will have to consider the impact a test may have on protected groups as it is being developed rather than after it's been administered.
Not only does the outcome of Ricci v. DeStefano have bearing on employment and civil rights but also on President Obama's pick for the Supreme Court, Judge Sonia Sotomayor. Because Sotomayor ruled opposite of the court when the case came to her in the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, her critics now have more ammunition to argue against her appointment to the court.
If Sotomayor is selected to sit on the court, she would be the first woman of color to hold that distinction. Sotomayor has Puerto Rican roots but grew up in the Bronx, N.Y.