Supreme Court backs white firefighters in bias case

Sheila Foster in Reuters, June 29, 2009

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court dealt a blow to President Barack Obama's high court nominee Sonia Sotomayor on Monday, overturning a ruling by her that it said would illegally deny promotions to white firefighters based on race.

The 5-4 ruling held that the city of New Haven, Connecticut, violated federal civil rights law when it threw out the results of a promotion exam after it yielded too many qualified white applicants and no acceptable black candidates.

Civil rights groups and other experts said the ruling in the closely watched racial discrimination case could affect promotion policies for employers nationwide, many of which operate under "affirmative action" programs designed decades ago to foster diversity and redress past bias.

"This decision will change the landscape of civil rights law," Fordham University law professor Sheila Foster said. Other legal experts said the ruling rolled back 25 years of precedent.

Splitting along conservative and liberal lines, the justices overturned a ruling by a three-judge U.S. appeals court panel that included Sotomayor, who is Obama's choice to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter.

Conservative critics quickly seized on the decision, authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, to demonstrate that Sotomayor was "out of sync" with mainstream legal thinking. If confirmed, she would become the top court's first Hispanic justice.

Opinion polls show strong support for Sotomayor's nomination. It is unclear how much opposition critics will mount when Senate confirmation hearings start on July 13.

'UNTOLD' DAMAGE

The court's liberals issued an impassioned dissent to the ruling. "Congress endeavored to promote equal opportunity in fact and not simply in form. The damage today's decision does to that objective is untold," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, taking the rare step of reading her dissent from the bench.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of a group of 19 white firefighters and one Hispanic firefighter who filed a lawsuit in 2004 against New Haven.

The firefighters said they would have been promoted if the city had not thrown out the tests for lieutenant and captain because no blacks had scored high enough to move up in rank.

It marked the first ruling by the court addressing racial discrimination in employment under Chief Justice John Roberts, who joined the court in 2005. In 2007, the court's conservative majority barred public schools from taking race into account to achieve or maintain integration.

Senator John Cornyn, one of seven Republicans on the 19-member Senate Judiciary Committee that will hear Sotomayor's nomination, applauded the decision. "And while the justices divided on the outcome, all nine justices were critical of the trial court opinion that Judge Sotomayor endorsed," he said.

Conservative legal analysts agreed. The ruling "suggests that we have somebody who's quite out of sync with the right approach to the law in this area," said Roger Clegg, who heads the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank.

But Sotomayor appears to be winning support among a broad cross section of Americans. A Washington Post poll published on Sunday showed 62 percent of those polled supported her elevation to the Supreme Court.

New Haven argued that if it had gone ahead with the promotions based on the test results, it would have risked a lawsuit claiming the exam hurt minorities in violation of federal civil rights law. But Kennedy said fear of litigation alone cannot justify reliance on race to the detriment of people who passed the exam and qualified for promotions.

The dispute was one of two major civil rights cases that reached the Supreme Court after Obama became the nation's first black president. In the other one, the court last week declined to decide a constitutional challenge to the Voting Rights Act that seeks to ensure access to the polls by minorities.

(Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Deborah Charles and Will Dunham)