Monday, June 29, 2009

White Firefighters win SCOTUS Appeal

he Supreme Court released its decision today regarding the so-called "reverse discrimination" case involving white firefighters from New Haven, Connecticut.

In a 5-4 decision, the Court overturned an appeals court ruling that allowed the city to toss the results of a promotions exam due to fears of litigation stemming from an overwhelmingly low number of minority applicants qualifying for the promotion. Justice Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, stated that, "Fear of litigation alone cannot justify an employer's reliance on race to the detriment of individuals who passed the examinations and qualified for promotions."

The case was controversial on its own merits; affirmative action cases always are. But the case had additional drama added to it since Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor was part of the appellate court that had made the original decision to allow the city to toss out the exam results. Because of this, she is now susceptible to conservative criticism of her not being "in tune" with the Court's ideological beliefs (even though the person she would be replacing voted against the majority), and privy to claims of racial prejudices.

But the question before the Court wasn't whether affirmative action should continue or even if the practice was legitimate. The question was whether the city of New Haven had the right to scrap its tests in order to avoid a lawsuit. Sotomayor argued that they had that right; the Supreme Court rejected that argument, but only by a slimmest of majorities. It wasn't an outright 9-0 vote; it was 5-4 against the opinion that Sotomayor had joined in the appellate court.

I support the Supreme Court's decision in a constricted sense: the city of New Haven probably shouldn't have tossed out the exam results unless they could find factual reason to believe it was racially biased. But there is an argument to make for the opposing view; cities should have the right to defend themselves, too, if they believe they are vulnerable to claims of racial biases. This matter should be examined on a case-by-case basis. And while I agree with the ruling in this specific case, I don't necessarily agree with the precedent this case presents.

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