On June 29, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of 20 New Haven firefighters who claimed, in a reverse discrimination suit, that they were denied a promotion because of their ethnicity.

The Court’s 5–4 ruling in Ricci v. DeStefano set a new standard that increases 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.

The ruling also overturns a decision that Sonia Sotomayor LAW ’79, who was confirmed to serve on the Supreme Court in early August, upheld as an appeals court judge, decision for which she drew criticism during her confirmation process.

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 ethnicity. The city had chosen not certify a 2003 promotion exam because the scores of the black firefighters were much lower than the scores of the white firefighters. Under that test, 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 ethnicities.

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 because 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.

In a concurrence co-signed by Scalia and Thomas, Alito 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.