Law & Courts

Supreme Court Rules in Firefighters’ Case Involving Race

By Erik W. Robelen — June 29, 2009 2 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled in a high-profile case on the race-conscious actions of government, finding by a vote of 5-4 that the city of New Haven, Conn., erred in refusing to recognize the results of a promotions exam for firefighters out of fear that it would violate the civil rights protections of minorities. The action reverses a lower court decision involving, and supported by, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace Justice David H. Souter, who is stepping down from the high court.

The ruling has potential implications for decisions on the promotion and hiring of employees by public school districts, though no school groups filed friend-of-the court briefs.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote the opinion for the majority, and was joined by Justices John G. Roberts Jr., Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Antonin Scalia.

In the case, Ricci v. DeStefano (Case No. 07-1428), 17 white and one Hispanic firefighter who scored well on a promotional exam claimed that the city of New Haven discriminated against them. Because no black or Hispanic firefighters scored high enough on the exam to win promotion to a lieutenant position, and no black test-takers scored high enough to make the list for captain, the city decided not to certify the results, saying in part that it did so to avoid violating discrimination protections for minorities.

A federal district judge held that the city’s action was justified. That decision was ultimately affirmed by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit that included Judge Sotomayor, who has come under fire from some conservatives for ruling against the firefighters in this case.

As Mark Walsh noted in a recent blog entry, during the April 22 oral arguments the justices made repeated references to a 2007 schools case in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District. In that decision, the court struck down voluntary integration plans in two school districts and sharply curtailed the way schools could use race in assigning students to schools.

Stay tuned for a more detailed analysis later today by Mark Walsh.

UPDATE: Read an Associated Press article about the decision here on

(The Sept. 2007 photo shows New Haven firefighter Frank Ricci, the lead plaintiff in the case, during testing of firefighting equipment. CREDIT: Keith Muratori/Fire Engineering/AP)

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A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.