Court sides with firefighters in Ricci case

The Supreme Court ruled Monday in favor of 20 New Haven firefighters who claimed in a reverse discrimination suit that they were denied promotion because of their race.

The Court’s 5-4 ruling in Ricci v. DeStefano set a new standard that raises the amount of evidence that must be present to throw out an employment or promotion test – something that could potentially limit an employee’s ability to bring a case against his or her employer when there is no evidence of intentional discrimination.

Frank Ricci, the lead plaintiff in the Ricci v. DeStefano case, looks on during the press conference Monday outside the federal courthouse on Church Street. Ricci said the Supreme Court's decision
Horace Williams
Frank Ricci, the lead plaintiff in the Ricci v. DeStefano case, looks on during the press conference Monday outside the federal courthouse on Church Street. Ricci said the Supreme Court's decision "vindicated" him and his fellow plaintiffs.

The ruling also overturns a decision that Sonia Sotomayor LAW ’79, who has been nominated to serve on the Supreme Court, upheld as an appeals court judge.

One Hispanic and 19 white firefighters first brought the case against the city of New Haven in 2004, claiming they were denied promotions to lieutenant and captain because of their race. The city chose not certify a 2003 promotion exam because the scores of the black firefighters were much lower than the scores of the white firefighters. As a result, no black firefighters would have been eligible for promotion.

“Whatever the city’s ultimate aim — however well intentioned or benevolent it might have seemed — the city made its employment decision because of race,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion. “The city rejected the test results solely because the higher scoring candidates were white.”

Kennedy was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito LAW ’75, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas LAW ’74.

Throughout the ongoing court proceedings, the city argued that — fearing a lawsuit from black firefighters — it had no choice but to throw out the test results to comply with Title VII since the test had a disparate impact on firefighters of different races.

The Court ruled instead that New Haven’s actions violated Title VII, which prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, religion, or national origin. The Court said that since there was no “strong basis in evidence” that the test was discriminatory, not-job related, or that there were less discriminatory alternatives, the city could not throw out the results.

“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 wrote.

The plaintiffs — led by Frank Ricci, a dyslexic firefighter who says he studied 10 hours per day for the exam only to have his dreams of promotion shot down by the city — argued that it was a fair, non-discriminatory test and that he and his fellow plaintiffs scored higher because they studied harder.

At a press conference on the steps of the federal courthouse on Church Street, Ricci called the ruling “vindication” for the group of firefighters who became known as the New Haven 20. “This is proof positive that people should be treated as individuals and not as statistics … and if you work hard, you can succeed in America,” he said, drawing a loud cheer from the audience.

Ricci and the rest of the plaintiffs, wearing commemorative pins affixed to their uniforms, crowded behind Attorney Karen Torre LAW ’86 at she read a prepared statement to the battery of cameramen and reporters who assembled near the New Haven Green this afternoon.

“These men became a symbol for those who were tired of seeing race take the place of merit,” Torre said. “We’re going to be seeking the full package of rights and remedies that these men are entitled to.”

Securing the promotions and recouping of the expenses involved with the case are the next priority, she said.

Alito, in a concurrence co-signed by Scalia and Thomas, claimed the city of New Haven’s concern about disparate impact was merely a politically motivated decision made by Mayor John DeStefano Jr. to placate his black supporters. But in a statement released after the decision, DeStefano reaffirmed his belief that “all the officials involved in the city’s decision acted in good faith.”

At his own press conference in City Hall, DeStefano praised the 20 firefighters for exemplary service and restated his position that the dismissal of the promotion tests’ results did not violate Title VII.

“The disparate impact clause protects against practices that are fair in form and discriminatory in operation. I’ll say that again — fair in form, but discriminatory in operation,” he said.

The mayor said the city’s decision to throw out the test was the right decision given the understanding of the law before the Supreme Court ruled but said the city will now abide by the court’s ruling.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a dissenting opinion co-signed by Justices Stephen Breyer, David Souter and John Paul Stevens, argued that New Haven should have only been required to show that they had “good cause” to suspect the test was discriminatory.

Furthermore, while she said that the test met the majority’s “strong basis in evidence” standard, Ginsburg argued that the majority opinion “ignores substantial evidence of multiple flaws in the tests New Haven used.”

“The Court similarly fails to acknowledge the better tests used in other cities, which have yielded less racially skewed outcomes,” she wrote.

The narrow ruling Monday was largely expected, as legal experts had long predicted the case would be decided by a 5 to 4 margin, with Kennedy as the swing vote.

Before the case reached the Court, a panel of three judges on the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals had affirmed a lower court’s dismissal of the case. The panel, which included Sotomayor, was criticized by other judges on the 2nd Circuit for the brevity of its February 2008 ruling — which consisted of all of one paragraph — in what was widely seen as a complicated case.


  • Anonymous

    The gravy train is over. Better start studying.

  • Laz D

    Good - now let's make sure this applies to the entrance exams also. Just because your daddy was a big somebody will not mean a gift of a job anymore - Nepotism and cronyism are kapoot - hooray

  • Yale Alum 2009

    Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Sonia Sotomayor!

  • Rachel

    I don't understand how this ruling in any way "limits an employee's ability to bring a case against his or her employer" without "evidence of "intentional discrimination." Presumably Korn is suggesting that it may become difficult to bring a <discrimination> case against an employer unless clear intent of discrimination is demonstrated. Yet even this assertion is misguided. Disparate impact is distinct from discrimination. Disparate impact is when a facially neutral, non-discriminatory practice leads to an adverse impact on a minority population. This ruling (appropriately, in my opinion) concludes that the blatant (and intentional) discrimination against the white and hispanic firefighters trumps the possibility of a disparate impact.

  • amen

    Take that Sotamayor!

  • Med Student

    Nice to see somebody finally made the correct decision.

  • @ 3, 5, Rachel

    You guys DO realize that Sotomayor was applying the law as it stood when the case came before her, right? In fact, up until the case got to SCOTUS, 8 federal judges had ruled on it, and all 8 sided with New Haven. Furthermore, the 5 judges in the majority opinion arguably represent 5 of the 6 most conservative judges to sit on the court in the last 50 years (Rehnquist would be the sixth). So, I'm not sure how five reactionaries chipping away at Title VII (with Alito and Scalia advocating a full-scale gutting of Title VII) somehow cast any doubt on Sotomayor's capabilities as a Judge. As Ginsburg said in her dissent, the SCOTUS opinion "will not have staying power."

    And Rachel, you say that "[d]isparate impact is distinct from discrimination," and are correct. However, you unfortunately ignore the fact that racial discrimnation in today's world is not as blatant as it once was, so we must take disparate impacts seriously; otherwise we may never be able to catch and remedy subtle yet pernicious forms of descrimination. It's unfortunate that so many people do not realize the rationale behind legislating protections against disparate impacts. You also refer to "blatant (and intentional) discrimination against the white and hispanic firefighters," and thereby somewhat disingenuously fail to acknowledge that the City of New Haven has actually proven on multiple occasions that its intent in tossing the test results was NOT discriminatory.

    This was a bad situation for everybody, but up until a bare reactionary majority rewrote the law, it was pretty clearly on New Haven's side.

  • George Patsourakos

    George Patsourakos
    The U.S. Supreme Court decision, which ruled in favor of the white firefighters in the Ricci case, is critical because it ascertains that reverse discrimination -- which favors minorities over more qualified whites -- has finally died in the United States. It's about time!

  • YLS grad

    Well, this ruling pretty much vindicates the proposition that Sotomayor is a mainstream, moderate justice on the liberal side of the Court's 5-4 divide. It appears that none of the four justices on the more liberal side disagreed with the Second Circuit panel that Sotomayor was on. Moreover, it's clear that the 5-4 majority today imposed a brand-new standard in Title VII law that even they agree was not the law before today. Sotomayor's decision just followed the law as it stood before today.

    Veteran Supreme Court lawyer Walter Dellinger puts it pretty simply:

    The advanced political commentary has been focused on what the decision will mean for the confirmation of Judge Sonia Sotomayor, who was a member of the court of appeals panel whose decision was reversed today. As one Republican senator put it on Sunday, will the Supreme Court decide the case in a way that shows her to be "outside the mainstream"? We now have the answer to that question, and the answer is no.

    Four Justices—Ginsburg, Stevens, Breyer, and Souter (whom Sotomayor would replace) —voted to affirm the decision she joined. I am confident (and hope to demonstrate in a later posting) that Justice Sandra Day O'Connor would surely have joined with those four had she still been on the court. In other words, the position Sotomayor took would have been affirmed, had the court not shifted to the right when George W. Bush named Samuel Alito to replace O'Connor. And even if I'm wrong about that, being with the four and not the five is fully within the mainstream, however that's defined.

    Moreover, reading the opinions makes clear that the court's five-justice majority is adopting a new standard. Justice Kennedy's opinion for the court says, "For the foregoing reasons, we adopt the strong-basis-in-evidence-standard … to resolve any conflict between the disparate-treatment and disparate-impact provisions of Title VII." Both the majority and dissenting opinions seem to agree that this represents the adoption of a new standard. (Justice Ginsburg, speaking in dissent from the bench, called it "novel.") As a court of appeals judge, Sotomayor was obligated to apply the law at the time of her decision. She did so.

    This decision should effectively take the Ricci issue off the table as an issue for her confirmation process. I'll have a lot to say about the decision later this afternoon, as I'm sure you all will.

  • Hieronymus

    A rare win for Harrison Bergeron! Huzzah!

    This case indeed reveals the long-term detrimental effect of "practical" (i.e., implemented) affirmative action--a la the Peter Principle: it promotes the relatively (please note: RELATIVELY) less qualified to a level just beyond their qualification. In this case, either the non-AA applicants have long been *over* qualified OR the AA applicants were finally revealed as *under* qualified (at least for promotion to the next level).

    Side question: Should we discourage the over-qualified from applying? That is, should we accept at the outset those only minimally to basically (as opposed to abundantly) qualified in order to avoid just this problem? Should we define both MIN and MAX qualifications? In a macro sense, that would free up the over-qualified to maximize their potential, right?

    In this case--and under current law/situation--it is, indeed, only right and fitting that we finally (FINALLY!) get out from under the crushing weight of racialism, aiming at last for Dr. King's color-blind society.


  • 1Y1

    I don't really care what this says about Sotomayor; as pointed out, she was indeed following precedent…

    …the point, however and thank GOD, is that the precedent has now changed. Finally some common sense and racial equality in matters of reverse discrimination. On with the race-blind (real equality) movement.

  • y2009

    Step in the right direction. Now can we start acknowledging that any person from any race, religion, creed, etc can be unintelligent and unlawful, and stop taking offense as a group for an individual who happens to share common ancestry? Enough with the immunity from accountability that is bred out of fear of being called racist.

  • Tina

    i agree #12, but if these Black firefighters called the Mayor racist would it ever make a difference in the election ? Or just in the nomination process of the union support for Mayor/ governor , that he feels is very important ?
    This Mayor has been tampering with applications and hires in all departments
    Minorities and females have been encouraged to apply - while caucasions have been strongly discouraged , But never the Caucasions OF the Mayor.I've seen this discouraging tactic applied to folks who do not have an application in.
    The Mayor got caught here by the Promotion exams, people already employed
    Union members nonetheless, as are your kitchen help
    p.s. -what happens now ? Do we demote the promoted ones ? Take back their money ? Possibly wind up with such a top heavy Dept., have no Indians and now we must hire dozens more and not really need them…I would'nt be surprised to see the City starting fires

  • Terry Hughes

    It's utterly wrong to say that 4 Justices agreed with THE WAY Sotomayor's panel handled this case. No Justice states that a one paragraph dismissal was appropriate or even conscionable. Justice Ginsburg's Footnote 10 concedes: "The lower courts focused on respondents’ “intent” rather than on whether respondents in fact had good cause to act. Ordinarily, a remand for fresh consideration would be in order."

    The Second Circuit did NOT order "a remand for fresh consideration." Instead, that panel pretended there was nothing in this case not already settled by Second Circuit precedent.

    If the Second Circuit had ordered a new hearing, let the case go to trial and buried the firemen in factual findings and legal technicalities the Supreme Court would probably never have gotten involved at all. And in that event New Haven would have won.

    But O, NO! Such ordinary, competent lawyering and opinion writing just wasn't enough for New Haven and the Second Circuit. They wanted a clean, mindless kill.

    And here's another ironic byproduct of the Second Circuit's stupid approach: That Court must now admit that the very same Second Circuit precedent claimed by the lower courts to have decided this case is now voided and overturned by today's Supreme Court decision. If Sotomayor's panel had not pretended that existing Second Circuit precedent did not settle the case it would not now be necessary to admit that such "controlling" Second Circuit precedent was voided today. So every plaintiff in the Second Circuit seeking to upset the kind of structure New Haven tried to defend now has TWO new arguments: (1) The language of today's Supreme Court opinion and (2) the argument that contrary "controlling" Second Circuit precedent has been voided today.

    Could the Second Circuit panel and apologists for New Haven and Sotomayor have been any stupider and self destructive? It's hard to see how.

    And Sotomayor is the kind of person the left wants to carry its banner on SCOTUS? As the old saying goes: Be careful what you wish for …

  • T.R

    Typically the court goes 5-4 giving the losers a claim to tie. Souter has been a weak kneed judge from the git-go. And with women outnumbering men in many proffesions and college campuses when will someone alert Ginsberg that she is no longer a victim. Can we stop using the Supreme Court as just another legislative branch looking to avoid tough decisions.

  • A Fleming

    IS there any way to see an on-line copy of this test??

  • Brian

    #16 you will never see an online copy of the test.

    and to anyone who thinks that the supreme court got this ruling wrong, go jump off a bridge because it is your ignorance that is killing this country. I am not aiming that at any specific race, gender, whatever, but if you really can't see that these guys were thrown under the bus then you are no good to society.

  • DeStefano

    Can someone please translate DeStefano-speak here (from, the liveblog site):

    On why he believes New Haven’s disproportionately high shooting rates for blacks and Hispanics are evidence of the need to rectify the 2003 tests’ disparate impact across the community:

    "There have been 88 shootings, to date, in the city of New Haven since January 1st. Seventy-six of the victims have been African-American. Ten have been Latino. One has been Asian. One has been white. These issues of how different groups are impacted are real in America. … I think it’s a continual erosion of the civil rights law by the Supreme Court."

    Umm… what?

  • T.R

    The Justices trying to be nice to their future jurist, took most of their anger at the New Haven "leaders" and the cities political BS nonesense. They should love the Obama Chicago thugs. The test was thrown out because the mayor was afraid of Bosie Kimber and being sued by the African American firefighters so they felt it was better to be sued by a bunch of "white guys" this race, gender, and god knows what else is an insult to this country.

  • reassign big

    The prevalence of reactionary comments on this website continues to astound me…

  • Anonymous

    I still don't understand how the test could have been so drastically skewed as to ensure that caucasian firemen would score significantly higher than the blacks who opposed the test. What gave the white firefigthers an advantage, and how did a dyslexic firefighter manage to do well on the test despite his apparent disadvantage? Our society has been trying much to hard to cover up the fact that people have become accustomed to the idea of entitlement, and thus lay back hoping that no one will speak out against blatant injustice! I am so grateful for the court's ruling in favor of the New Haven 20.

  • Doug

    The public school systems of the U.S. may short change minorities with sub-standard educations; however, if you didn't recieve the education necessary to do the job of higher ranking offices or administrators, your only chance is to work hard and study. Uneducated people shouldn't be promoted simply because they are minorities. That simply makes no sense. That kind of thinking that the world should be "fair" to everyone is what is destroying this country. The world isn't fair! Wake up! You want something, earn it!

  • James T. Madison

    #20 - reassign big - wrote:

    "The prevalence of reactionary comments on this website continues to astound me…"

    Why is it that so many liberals are so often "astounded" that so many not-like-minded people actually have the temerity to speak thier minds, and in so many different contexts?

    Sotomayor's "Ricci" actions were extreme and incorrect (and now overruled) in matters both procedural and substantive. Not a single Justice agreed in writing that her hideous one-paragraph summary disposition was appropriate, for example. But some are neverless "astounded" by the prevalence here of comments critical of Sotomayor's abuses and errors (excuse me, I mean "reactionary comments"). Go figure.

  • BA, 85, Ph.D., 2000

    i completely agree with #20's assessment. i too am astounded by the reactionary comments regarding this case. what happened to my beloved yale? who are you people? 88 murders in new haven since the beginning of the years, most victims are african-americans. doesn't that number tell you anything? ricci's disingenuous comment about working hard and succeeding in america is unconscionable.

  • James Tiberius Madison

    #24 By BA, 85, Ph.D., 2000 wrote: "what happened to my beloved yale? 88 murders in new haven since the beginning of the years, most victims are african-americans"

    Ah, yes. And almost all of the murderers were African-Americans, too. So what? What does any of that have to do with fireman Ricci's civil rights or the wisdom of installing a mediocre, partisan person with a deeply confused concept of the proper role of an appellate judge on SCOTUS for life, largely on racial grounds?

    Sotomayor has some of the highest levels of public opposition of any Supreme Court nominee in 20 years. Even with the mainstream media acting like Obama's lap dogs, only forty-seven percent of poll respondents say the Senate should confirm Sotomayor versus forty-percent who say they should not. Here's the link:

    Perhaps if to remain "beloved" Yale has to share an incoherently expressed political orientation, and approve the smear of the more insightful 40% of the population as "reactionary," there's something wrong with the alleged "love?"

    Just asking.

  • Recent Alum

    Is #24 a parody of the left-wing, Sotomayor apologists? If so, well played. If not, wow.

  • y'10

    the answer to black on black crime does not involve refusing to promote white firefighters. sorry.

    a nonwhite student.