Fordham Law

The "New Haven 20": Supreme Court rules for firefighters

Sheila Foster in Examiner, June 29, 2009

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the city of New Haven, Connecticut for their refusal to promote a group of Caucasian and Hispanic firefighters. The city was unwilling to advance these firefighters based on the fact that no African American was found to be among the qualifying finishers following of an advancement exam given in 2003. An on-line article published by Reuters quotes Fordham University law professor Sheila Foster as saying, “’This decision will change the landscape of civil rights law,’….Other legal experts said the ruling rolled back 25 years of precedent.”

“Fifty-six firefighters passed the exams, including 41 whites, nine blacks and six Hispanics.” 

“Based on the tests, all the top 10 candidates for lieutenant were white and seven of the top nine for captain were white, along with two Hispanics.”  The Court did not find the city presented adequate reasons for tossing the exam’s determinations and its subsequent refusal to promote the most successful test-takers.

New Haven had taken its action—throwing out the test results—based on the fear that the city would be sued by the African American firefighters who did not pass the exam. Instead, the city was sued by 18 of the white and the Hispanic firefighter who were not promoted; they claimed to be victims of “reverse discrimination.” This landmark decision was issued by the Court as they wrapped their term.

Following a 5-4 decision, the majority opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy stated that New Haven’s actions violated Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. "’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’”. 

The decision overturned an appellate decision issued by a three-judge court which included Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. This is not likely to have any lasting effect on her nomination, but some Republicans have seized the moment and are criticizing Judge Sotomayor as “out of sync” with the times. Democrats are firing back, saying that the Hispanic Sotomayor did nothing wrong.

The ruling by the Supreme Court will have a reverberating impact on workplaces across the country. It is, “sure to be closely studied by personnel departments and their lawyers for indications of how far employers can go, and under what circumstances, in considering race in decisions on hiring and promotion.” 

The decision by the Supreme Court will send this case back to the lower court.