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.

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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.