Fordham Law


Firefighters Case Prompts Reaction on Sotomayor's Role in Lower Court Decision

Sheila Foster in PBS, June 29, 2009

Media Source

The Supreme Court's Ricci v. DeStefano decision was highly anticipated not only because of its potential impact on civil rights and affirmative action, but also due to high court nominee Sonia Sotomayor's role in the case as an appeals court judge.

The decision, released Monday morning, prompted a great deal of reaction about both the precedent set by the case and Sotomayor's involvement. The following is a sample of what is being said:

While the case concerned public employees, the ruling will likely affect private employers, since Title VII of the Civil Rights Act covers both private and public employers, said Sheila Foster, a Fordham Law School professor who teaches anti-discrimination law and has been involved in litigating cases under the Civil Rights Act.

Foster predicted that "this decision will change the landscape of civil rights law and casts continued doubt on the disparate impact theory of discrimination."

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"Now we're going to get the best managers as far as firefighters go. That's really important," said Jim Ricci, whose son, Frank, was the lead plaintiff on the lawsuit.

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Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, Democratic chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Sotomayor should not be criticized for the unsigned appeals court decision, which he asserted she did not write. "Judge Sotomayor and the lower court panel did what judges are supposed to do, they followed precedent," said Leahy, who will preside over her confirmation hearings next month.

Leahy also called the high court decision "cramped" and wrong.

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Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee said: "This case sharpens our focus on Judge Sotomayor's troubling speeches and writings, which indicate ... that personal experiences and political views should influence a judge's decision. That theory is a breathtaking departure from the proper role of the American judge and will clearly be the subject of questioning at the upcoming hearing."

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"Today's decision is a victory for evenhanded application of the law. Saying the earlier decision was 'antithetical to the notion of a workplace where individuals are guaranteed equal opportunity regardless of race,' the Supreme Court saw the case for what it is: a 'race-based decision' that violates federal law. And while the Justices were divided on the outcome, all nine Justices were critical of the trial court opinion that Judge Sotomayor endorsed," Judiciary Committee member Sen. John Cornyn , R-Texas, said in a statement.

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"They in no way undercut Judge Sotomayor's contention that she was following established precedent and was bound to do so," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the Judiciary Committee, in a conference call with reporters.

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"What Judge Sotomayor did in Ricci was the equivalent of a pilot error resulting in a bad plane crash. And now the pilot is being offered to fly Air Force One," said Wendy Long of the conservative Judicial Confirmation Network.

She added that the firefighters "who protect the public safety and worked hard for their promotions did not deserve to become victims of racial quotas.''

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"The Supreme Court today correctly held that race-based employment decisions must be justified by facts, not fear. These firefighters, who worked long and hard for it, were denied the chance for promotion because of their race," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a former chairman of the Judiciary Committee. "In the twenty-first century, race discrimination requires more justification than the fear of being sued. The Second Circuit should have recognized the serious and unique issues this case raised and given it the thorough treatment it deserved."

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Tom Goldstein, legal expert at SCOTUSblog: "It doesn't call (Sotomayor's) confirmation into question, and I don't think it will persuade anybody who was inclined one way or the other to change their views about Sotomayor, either in the Senate or in the broader public."