Officials in New Haven, Conn., illegally discriminated against white members of the city's fire department when they refused to honor the results of a civil service exam after no African-Americans qualified for a promotion.
The US Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 on Monday that the Connecticut city violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by using race as the key criterion in refusing to certify a group of white and Hispanic firefighters for promotion.
City officials said they were afraid that if they promoted the white and Hispanic firefighters but no African-American firefighters, the city would be subject to a lawsuit by black firefighters. The high court disagreed.
"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," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion.
The New Haven firefighters case – and the Supreme Court's view of it – are expected to play an important role in Judge Sotomayor's Senate confirmation hearings next month.
The judge is believed to be a strong supporter of New Haven's legal position in the case. In addition, it is unclear why her three-judge panel initially handed down a brief, unpublished, unsigned summary order disposing of the case without offering even cursory legal analysis.
Beyond the Sotomayor nomination, the decision is important because it provides guidance to employers that they may continue to rely on objective, work-related exams without facing a discrimination lawsuit from those who do not pass the test.
At the heart of the case were two competing provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. One section bars discriminatory treatment based on race or ethnicity. A different section urges employers to avoid making job-related decisions that create a disparate impact on minority workers.
If, for example, a city conducts an exam to determine which workers will be promoted and then no African-Americans are identified for promotion – that disparate impact on black workers is presumed to be illegal. The city is expected to correct the situation.
But the law also forbids employers from using race as the sole or primary criterion for hiring or promotions – including decisions that disfavor white employees because of their race.
In this way, New Haven found itself in a Catch-22.
Justice Kennedy and the other majority justices resolved this dilemma by ruling that New Haven needed a "strong basis in evidence" to justify its discrimination against white and Hispanic firefighters. He said a mere statistical disparity alone could not amount to the strong evidence necessary.
Kennedy added that once a fair test procedure is set, employers may not invalidate the results based on race or ethnicity. "Doing so ... is antithetical to the notion of a workplace where individuals are guaranteed equal opportunity regardless of race," he wrote.
In a dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said New Haven had not engaged in illegal discrimination against the white firefighters because they had no vested right to a promotion.
She wrote that the majority justices ignored "substantial evidence of multiple flaws in the tests New Haven used." She added that the court failed to acknowledge better tests used in other cities.
"The court's order and opinion, I anticipate, will not have staying power," she said.