Monday, June 29, 2009
Sotomayor Supreme Court Nomination Takes A Hit; Court Rules In Ricci V. DeStefano That White New Haven Firefighters Suffered Racial Discrimination
On Monday June 29th, 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with white firefighters in Ricci v. DeStefano, a workplace discrimination lawsuit over the role race should play in job advancement. In the split 5-4 vote, a majority of the justices ruled that the city of New Haven, Connecticut, improperly threw out the results of promotional exams that officials said left too few minorities qualified. Barack Obama's Latina Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor, who is a member of National Council of La Raza, heard the case on her federal appeals court last year and sided with the city, so it was her decision which was overturned. Primary media story from CNN; additional stories published by the Boston Globe and the Washington Post (good background story). Time Magazine believes it will be a blow to Sotomayor, while Rush Limbaugh posts reaction HERE. Extensive local Connecticut coverage from WTNH Channel 8 in New Haven.
Read the 93-page Court decision HERE in PDF format.
As a result of the exam adminstered by the city of New Haven, only one Latino and no Black firefighters qualified for promotion; the city subsequently decided not to certify the results and issued no promotions. A group of 20 mostly white firefighters sued, claiming reverse discrimination. WTNH news video embedded below:
The Supreme Court was being asked to decide whether there was a continued need for special treatment for minorities, or whether enough progress has been made to make existing laws obsolete, especially in a political atmosphere in which a multi-racial man who is half Black occupies the White House. At issue was whether the city intentionally discriminated -- in violation of both federal law and the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause.
"The city rejected the test results solely because the higher scoring candidates were white," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority. "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." Joining Kennedy in the majority were Justices Roberts, Scalia, Alito, and Thomas.
In a dissent read from the bench, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg questioned the fairness of the test, which was 60 percent written and 40 percent oral. "Relying so heavily on pencil-and-paper exams to select firefighters is a dubious practice," Ginsburg said, calling the majority ruling "troubling." Joining Ginsburg in the minority were Justices Stevens, Souter, and Breyer.
Sotomayor has been nominated to replace David Souter, who is stepping down later this year. Not only was Sotomayor was part of a three-judge panel that ruled in February 2008 to uphold a lower court decision supporting New Haven's move to throw out the results, but in June 2008, she was also part of a 7-6 majority that denied a rehearing of the case by the full court.
New Haven Mayor John DeStefano was not surprised by the decision, but says it puts the city in a box where they're damned if they do and damned if they don't. In contrast, the White firefighters feel vindicated by the decision; Frank Ricci, the firefighter named in the case, said "This ruling is a vindication for all, the New Haven 20 and the rest of the country".
The White House does not believe this decision will jeopardize the Sotomayor nomination. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said this afternoon that the high court's ruling will not hurt Sotomayor's confirmation bid. Instead, considering how narrow a decision it was, he said the decision showed that the conservative majority was delving into judicial activism, while she was following past rulings.
Public reaction on Sotomayor is split. While in a Washington Post-ABC News poll published June 28th, 62 percent of Americans surveyed support her elevation to the court and 55 percent said Sotomayor is about right on a liberal-to-conservative scale, in contrast, a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey released today showed that 65 percent agreed that the white firefighters were victims of discrimination and should get the promotions based on the test results.
Alaska's two senators have not officially reacted to this announcement. Previously, Senator Lisa Murkowski met with Sotomayor and characterized the meeting as productive, but remains undecided. This Supreme Court decision may make her less likely to vote for Sotomayor's confirmation. Senator Mark Begich also met with Sotomayor, discussing a whole range of Alaskan issues, and walked away seemingly convinced that she doesn't legislate from the bench. Begich remains non-committal, although I'm not sure this Court decision would make him less likely to vote for Sotomayor's confirmation.
As far as I'm concerned, this is the last straw. Added to her previous racist remark about "wise Latina woman" and her equivocacy on Second Amendment rights, the Supreme Court's overturning of one of her major decisions shows a serious lack of a sense of jurisprudence. Sonia Sotomayor has clearly established herself as unqualified for service on the highest court in the land, and I hope Republican senators prepare to filibuster if necessary to stop her appointment.