The Supreme Court heard its first case on racial injustice in the Obama era yesterday, hearing claims of job discrimination by white firefighters.
The case was brought by 20 white firefighters in New Haven, Conn. — including one white Hispanic — whose passing scores on a promotion test were thrown out because no blacks and only one Hispanic fared well enough to be made lieutenant or captain.
The High Court appeared split along ideological lines. The case could mean major changes in employment practices nationwide.
Justice Anthony Kennedy appeared to hold the key to the outcome, according to the Associated Press. He seemed concerned that the city abandoned the test without investigating if there flaws in the exam that might have led to the racially disproportionate results.
“So shouldn’t there be some standard that there has to be a significant, a strong showing after the test has been taken that it’s deficient? Before it can be set aside?” he said, according to the AP.
The court’s conservative justices appeared to side with the white firefighters. Chief Justice John Roberts wondered whether the city could continue throwing out tests when it doesn’t like the results. “They get do-overs until it comes out right?” Roberts said, according to the AP.
The city scrapped the test results for promotions because it did not want exposure to lawsuits from blacks and Hispanics.
Citing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination on the basis of race or sex, the white candidates filed suit. After numerous rulings were made in favor of the city, the firefighters appealed to the Supreme Court.
The liberal justices didn’t appear to believe that New Haven did anything wrong when it threw out the test.
A ruling against the city, Justice David Souter said, could leave employers in an untenable situation that could open them up to lawsuits – from wither disgruntled white or minority workers — no matter what they did.
The case brings to light a broader question about racial progress and if certain provisions under the Civil Rights Act are still needed in light of the election of President Barack Obama.
A decision is expected by late June. The case is Ricci v. DeStefano.