Supremes Flip Sotomayor's Reverse Discrimination Ruling

High court backs 20 New Haven firefighters

By Brad Drazen and andrew pergam
|  Monday, Jun 29, 2009  |  Updated 1:32 PM PDT
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Karen Torre, Attorney for the New Haven 20

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Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor's smile may have lost some of its polish with the news that the high court flipped one of her most controversial decisions.

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New Haven Mayor John DeStefano

Mayor John DeStefano offers his opinion on the decision in Ricci v. DeStefano.

Karen Torre, Attorney for the New Haven 20

"Today is a great day for them," says the attorney representing 20 New Haven firefighters.
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A group of 20 New Haven firefighters won a major victory from the Supreme Court Monday morning in their reverse discrimination lawsuit against the city, which had originally been decided against them by Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

On a 5-4 vote, the court ruled with the firefighters, one Hispanic and 19 white firefighters (the Ricci of Ricci vs. DeStefano), who said they were denied promotions after passing the appropriate exam. The city of New Haven and Mayor John DeStefano threw out the test results because no minorities scored high enough for a promotion. That, the city expressed, would leave them open for discrimination lawsuits from black firefighters.

"There is no evidence -- let alone the required strong basis in evidence -- that the tests were flawed because they were not job-related or because other, equally valid and less discriminatory tests were available to the City," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in his majority decision. (PDF)

Sotomayor, President Obama's choice to replace the retiring Justice Souter, was part of a three-judge panel that rejected an appeal by the group of New Haven firefighters. 

Presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs said the ruling would not cause problems for her confirmation hearings.

"There's little political significance to whatever the court decided today in terms of Judge Sotomayor except to render a fairly definitive opinion that she follows judicial precedent and that she doesn't legislate from the bench," Gibbs said.

He added the White House wants Sotomayor to be sworn in and seated by Sept. 9, when the new court will hear a First Amendment case.

The court resolved the city's fear of litigation can not justify the refusal to apply the test, reports Scotusblog.com. The case is expected to have wide-ranging implications for employment law.

 "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," Kennedy added.

Kennedy was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

In the dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the white firefighters "understandably attract this court's sympathy. But they had no vested right to promotion. Nor have other persons received promotions in preference to them."

Justices Stephen Breyer, David Souter and John Paul Stevens signed onto Ginsburg's dissent, which she read aloud in court Monday.

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