A Connecticut Supreme Court ruling against the city of New Haven released this week is the latest chapter of a battle over promotions in the city’s civil service that has raised allegations of racial discrimination and political favors.
The court’s decision upholds a lower court’s ruling that the New Haven’s promotions policy violates the city charter by providing excessive discretion in civil service promotion decisions. The plaintiffs in the case, five New Haven police officers, alleged they had been passed over for promotions in favor of candidates who scored lower than they did on examinations and should not have been considered for advancement.
According to the city charter, only the top three scorers on examinations can be considered for promotion. At issue in the case was the city’s former policy of rounding examination scores to create ties and considering three “ranks” of candidates with the same rounded scores, a policy the plaintiffs said sometimes yielded as many as 45 candidates for promotion rather than three.
Karen Torre, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said the policy was used by city officials to promote people with political connections and to favor black candidates over higher-scoring white candidates in an effort to adjust for a racial gap on standardized written test scores. Some of the people who were selected over the plaintiffs despite having lower test scores were black, while the plaintiffs were all white.
“Politicians try to resist any system that inhibits their ability to hire their friends and political cronies,” Torre said. “And I think the city saw it as the only way to promote African Americans who they wanted to promote.”
But city officials said political connections and race were not factors in the city’s hiring practices.
“The city’s policy is to promote the best person for the position regardless of their race,” corporation counsel Thomas Ude, the city’s head lawyer, said. “It is our policy and our expectation that the best candidates are not going to just be found among white people.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling did not touch on the issues of political favoritism and racial discrimination, but these issues are the subject of separate pending claims for damages made by some of the plaintiffs, Ude said.
Tina Burgett, New Haven’s director of human resources, said the city used rounding because the margin of error on examinations was sufficiently great to make some scores equivalent.
“Statistically there is no difference between someone who scores at a, for instance, 92.3 versus someone who scores a 92.2,” Burgett said.
Though the court sided with the plaintiffs, it asserted that it was the combination of rounding and creating ranks that gave officials excessive discretion. Ude said although the city sees the ruling as a “disappointment,” the fact that the court did not rule out rounding alone was a small victory.
The city no longer rounds examination scores when considering promotions, but Burgett and Ude did not rule out the possibility of reinstituting rounding in a manner consistent with the Supreme Court’s ruling.
The legal controversy over New Haven’s civil service promotions policy has been ongoing since 2000, when four of the plaintiffs in the case filed and won a lawsuit against the city in a lower court. In 2002, New Haven residents voted down a charter review proposal that, among numerous other changes, would have legally given officials broader discretion in making promotions.
Ude said although city officials will be careful to ensure their promotions policy is in accordance with the Supreme Court’s ruling, the prospect of future lawsuits remains.
“I don’t think realistically anyone would expect either in New Haven or any other city that there will not be litigation in the future by someone who’s unhappy with whatever practice is either continued or established,” Ude said.