In the 2009 case of Ricci v. DeStefano (also known as the “New Haven firefighters case,” in which Cato filed a brief), the Supreme Court declared that an employer that did not certify race-neutral promotion-exam results could be liable to the candidates who were not promoted as a result (because those candidates would have been discriminated against based on their race, or “disparate treatment” in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act). A corollary to that holding is that an employer that did certify such results would be immune from liability for any resulting racial disparities in promotion (known as “disparate-impact” claims under Title VII).
As Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the Court majority, “If, after it certifies the results, the City faces a disparate-impact suit, then in light of our holding today it should be clear that the City would avoid disparate-impact liability based on the strong basis in evidence that, had it not certified the results, it would have been subject to disparate–treatment liability.”
Despite this clear guidance from the Supreme Court, one of the black New Haven firefighters who did not gain promotion as a result of the test certification sued the city, alleging disparate-impact discrimination. The district court dismissed his claim but the Second Circuit inexplicably reversed that ruling and reinstated the lawsuit -- considering Ricci’s corollary holding (quoted above) to be non-binding.
Cato has now filed a short brief supporting New Haven’s request that the Supreme Court review that decision -- and perhaps even reverse it summarily -- arguing that Title VII’s provisions are complex and onerous enough, such that employers should not be subject to liability for following court orders.
The Court will decide later this spring what to do with this case of City of New Haven v. Briscoe.
Having sat through the entire gavel-to-gavel coverage of last week's confirmation hearings, I still don’t know if I would vote to confirm Sonia Sotomayor if I were a senator, I really don’t. Deciding how to vote on this is more than a simple matter of deciding whether she is “qualified” to sit on the Supreme Court—which is hard enough given there is no fixed qualification standard.
It also has to include how much deference you want to give the president, in general terms but also taking into account that Sotomayor will likely be confirmed and you want to position yourself politically for the next nominee. And it has to include, of course, how your constituents feel; while it’s cowardly to follow opinion polls blindly, you are accountable to those who sent you to Washington. There are many other considerations, both political and legal.
But I’m not a senator—or even a senator’s aide—so I don’t have to make that decision. As a constitutional lawyer, however, I can say that—even as most of Sotomayor’s opinions are uncontroversial—it is impossible to overlook the short thrift the judge gave to the judicial process in Ricci v. DeStefano and Didden v. Port Chester. I am similarly hard-pressed to accept hearing-seat conversions that contradict over 15 years of speeches and articles: most notably against the idea that judges’ ethnic backgrounds—and even “physiological differences”—should affect their rulings.
Given Sotomayor’s repeated past rejection of the idea that law is or should be objective, stable, or discernible from written text, her inability during her testimony to explain her judicial philosophy—or even state her position on important cases and issues beyond an acceptance of precedent (by which she would no longer be bound in her new role)—leaves me with an abiding concern about the damage she could do to the rule of law in this country. Because of the nominee's evasion, obfuscation, and doubletalk, I like her less now than I did before the hearings.
And so, on second thought, I do know how I would vote. During John Roberts's confirmation hearings, Sen. Dick Durbin said that “no one has a right to sit on the Supreme Court” and that the “burden of proof for a Supreme Court justice is on the nominee.” I will follow this very apt "burden of proof" paradigm and respect the logic of Sen. Arlen Specter, the Republican-turned-Democrat former judiciary committee chairman who at President Clinton’s impeachment trial curiously evoked Scottish law to vote “not proven.” Given the impropriety of citing foreign law (another issue on which the nominee failed to explain her “conversion” in hearing testimony), I would vote that the case for confirming Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court is “not proven”—under American law.
Ricci is a victory for merit over racial politics—which is appropriate given that the ruling overturns a lower court panel that included Sonia Sotomayor.
In the blockbuster decision we’d been awaiting all term, the Court reached the correct result: The government can’t make employment decisions based on race. While the city’s desire to get more blacks into leadership positions at the fire department is commendable, it cannot pursue this goal by denying promotions simply because those who earned them happen to have an inconvenient skin color.
This ruling is the latest in a series of steps the Court has taken to strike down race-conscious actions that violate individual rights—and thus is a blow both to the Obama administration (which sided with the city in Ricci) and to the nomination of Judge Sotomayor. Those who bring cases before the courts deserve much more than empathy or even “sympathy”—the word Justice Ginsburg uses in her dissent—they deserve equal treatment under the law.
In its opinion today in Ricci v. DeStefano, the Supreme Court came down solidly for upholding the equal protection of the law.
The political implications of this decision for the Sotomayor nomination are several, but her refusal to wrestle with the important issues at stake and to side summarily with the city, together with her many statements off the bench about “identity politics,” should make for very interesting confirmation hearings just two weeks ahead.
The Court reversed the decision of the Second Circuit panel on which Judge Sonya Sotomayor sat, which had upheld, summarily, the lower court’s decision to allow the city of New Haven to throw out the results of a racially neutral promotion exam for city firefighters after whites did better than blacks on the exam.
As the Court said, all the evidence suggests that the city rejected the test results because the higher scoring candidates were white. The city’s rationale for engaging in this intentional discrimination was to avoid a suit by black firefighters. But the city could take the position it did only if there were strong evidence that its test was racially biased or not job related or that there was some other equally valid non-discriminatory test that the city refused to administer. There was no such evidence, the Court concluded. Had the city been sued by the black firefighters, it would have won.
Thus, it’s rationale for throwing out the test results will not withstand scrutiny. The city engaged in outright intentional discrimination.