May 26th, 2009 | City

Sotomayor nomination throws spotlight on firefighters case

President Barack Obama’s nomination of federal appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor LAW ’79 on Tuesday throws a new spotlight on Ricci v. DeStefano, a reverse discrimination case about a promotion examination used by the New Haven Fire Department.

In February 2008, in what is widely considered her most high-profile case, Sotomayor joined the unsigned opinion of a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in upholding a lower court’s decision to reject a lawsuit that had been filed by one Hispanic and 19 white firefighters against the city. The firefighters had said they were denied promotion based on their race, as the city had thrown out their 2003 promotion exam because no black firefighter received a score on the exam high enough to likely earn him a promotion.

The brevity of the panel’s ruling — which contained only one substantive paragraph — disturbed some justices on the Appeals Court, but in a 7-6 vote, the full Appeals court declined four months later to rehear the case. The six dissenting justices, who said in their dissent the three-judge panel’s “perfunctory disposition rests uneasily with the weighty issues presented by this appeal,” asked the Supreme Court to hear the case.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on April 22 and is expected to rule on the case next month. Justice Anthony Kennedy is widely viewed as the swing vote in what will likely be a 5-4 decision.

Click here to read past coverage of Ricci v. DeStefano, and here for an analysis of Sotomayor and the firefighters case by Slate senior editor Emily Bazelon ’93 LAW ’00.