Supreme Court Rules Firefighter Test Cannot Be Invalidated

By Alan Stewart Carl | Related entries in Race, Supreme Court

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In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court has reversed the appellate court decision on a controversial race case involving firefighters in New Haven, Connecticut.

Previously, the appellate court including Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, ruled that the city of New Haven did nothing wrong by throwing out the results of a promotion exam because no African Americans and too few Hispanic firefighters passed the test. In a decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, 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.

Kennedy was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas. Predictably, the dissenters came from the “liberal block” with the dissenting opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who said the white firefighters “had no vested right to promotion. Nor have other persons received promotions in preference to them.”

Sotomayor has been criticized for the appellate court’s decision, partially for its ruling and partially for what some perceive to be simplistic and faulty legal logic. If the Supreme Court had reversed the ruling with something other than the usual 5-4 split, Sotomayor opponents may have found some traction with this issue. However, with retiring justice David Souter essentially voting to uphold the lower court’s ruling, I imagine this case will quickly fade from the Sotomayor debate.

Note: The original title of this post implied the court ruled in favor of only white firefighters. This is an inaccurate representation of the case as two of the firefighters receiving promotion are Latino.


This entry was posted on Monday, June 29th, 2009 and is filed under Race, Supreme Court. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

5 Responses to “Supreme Court Rules Firefighter Test Cannot Be Invalidated”

  1. Paul Says:

    The White firefighters had as much of a vested right as the Black firefighters did Bader Ginsburg’s opinions aside. As a retired firefighter I never wanted a promotion because of my race – rather I wanted a promotion because of my ability to do the job. AA is a doubled edged sword.

  2. kranky kritter Says:

    Even though Sotamayor will get confirmed with no real battle, it’s pretty interesting that we can assume for a fact that she could have sent this decision the other way.

    I hope its not left up to the courts to decide how to negotiate the treacherous waters of scaling back race-based set-aside policies as America gradually realizes its potential to be a nation that judges on all on the content of their character, as MLK once counseled.

    This needs to be something where the people and their reps play a big role, not special interests and their hand-picked plaintiffs.

  3. Simon Says:

    The headline is incorrect by ommission. The court ruled in favor of white and hispanic firefighters. Nor is it entirely accurate, except in a manner of speaking, to say that the panel – Sotomayor in particular, given her prominence – were criticized for “what some perceive to be simplistic and faulty legal logic.” The panel was criticized for a complete absence of reasoning. It tried to bury the case by deciding it without an opinion, and when called out by another circuit judge for its behavior, issued a desultory half-page per curiam opinion adopting the district court’s view.

    As Judge Cabranes noted, dissenting from rehearing en banc, “[t]he use of per curiam opinions of this sort, adopting in full the reasoning of a district court without further elaboration,”–let alone summary orders of the kind the panel originally sought to use!–”is normally reserved for cases that present straight-forward questions that do not require explanation or elaboration by the Court of Appeals. The questions raised in this appeal cannot be classified as such, as they are indisputably complex and far from well-settled.”

  4. norris hall Says:

    When it comes to racial preferences, it’s not always the whites who are the wronged party.

    Recently The University of California changed it’s admission policy for all 9 of it’s campuses.
    Flooded by Asian students who tend to do better than whites on test scores and school grades, the US regents decided to downplay the importance of tests and grades in their admission policy
    http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/economy/ap/48683642.html
    “I like to call it affirmative action for whites,” said Ling-chi Wang, a retired professor at UC Berkeley. “I think it’s extremely unfair to Asian-Americans on the one hand and underrepresented minorities on the other.”
    The new policy would eliminate the requirement that applicants take two SAT subject tests and reduce the number of students guaranteed admission based on grades and test scores alone. It takes effect for the freshman class of fall 2012.

  5. kranky kritter Says:

    I get Chang’s point, but that’s a pretty idiosyncratic way to put it, that the policy change is somehow unfair BOTH to Asians and to other minorities.

    Unless the policy change results in all replaced Asians being replaced by whites, then the policy change is bad for Asians but good for whites and for non-asian minorities.

    Asians sit in a peculiar spot in this debate due to their “model minority” status, a status which Asians seek to obscure by calling it a myth. Now, it may be an oversimplification of Asian Amerian academic achievement, but it’s no myth. Asian-Americans tend to test well. Good results on tests by Asian Americans are almost certainly due not to innate genetic superiority, but rather to cultural factors which lead to Asian-American students taking school more seriously and preparing for tests.

    It’s pretty sad that in all the debate, we can’t even all come round to agreeing that when a culture values education and demands high achievement, and when students take school seriously and wrok hard, they do better.

    Personally, I am not against colleges adopting admissions policies which place emphasis on other things besides standardized test results.

    However, in cases of things like civil service promotions and state licensing exams, I think criterion-referenced testing should at minimum be a gatekeeper. Criterion referenced testing means that you are not graded versus other test takers, but on an absolute scale. I would be fine with promotions based only partially on test scores so long as the other criteria were related to performance. For example, maybe there are 10 spots and the firefighter with the 15th best test score also had multiple commendations for bravery. Arguably that’s a more deserving candidate.

    But you can’t ever expand the criteria to the point where people are promoted despite failing to demonstrate sufficient content-mastery for the position they seek. You can’t for example, promote a firefighter who doesn’t understand the particular approach necessary to combat various situations involving hazardous chemicals. Such a promotion could cost lives.

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