Judge Sonia Sotomayor this morning defended her appeals court panel’s decision in a controversial race case involving employment testing.
The U.S. Supreme Court nominee was asked about the issue by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who told Sotomayor she has been attacked by conservatives as “biased and prejuduiced” for joining a decision that upheld the city of New Haven, Conn.’s action to discard a test for promotions in its fire department after African-American firefighters did not score highly enough to become eligible for promotion.
A group of white and Latino firefighters appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 last month in Ricci v. DeStefano that New Haven violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it discarded the test results.
Today, responding to Sen. Leahy’s fairly friendly questions about the case, Judge Sotomayor said, “The issue in Ricci is what the city did or could do when it was presented a challenge to one of its tests.
This was not a quota case.”
Sotomayor said the city faced a possible “disparate impact” lawsuit from the black firefighters because the disproportionate results of the employment test.
“Given circuit precedent, the panel decided the city’s decision was lawful under existing new law,” Sotomayor said, adding that the Supreme Court’s decision set a new standard under Title VII.
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the committee, pressed Sotomayor further about the case.
“A lot of people were disappointed that the panel decision was so short,” Sessions says about what was indeed a short, unsigned opinion in the Ricci case by Sotomayor’s panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. Also, Sessions says, Sotomayor’s withheld a vote that would have allowed the full 2nd Circuit to reconsider the case.
Sotomayor responded that the panel’s decision relied on a “very thoughtful, very thorough” 78-page opinion by the district court below.
“We were very sympathetic to firefighters who challenged the city’s decision,” Judge Sotomayor said of the three-judge panel, but the test clearly had a disparate impact, and under circuit precedent, the city could discard the test. The Supreme Court’s ruling changed the landscape on that, she acknowledged.
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.