Ricci v. DeStefano, 129 S. Ct. 2658; 174 L. Ed. 2d 490 (2009)

Facts—New Haven, Connecticut, used objective examinations to determine eligibility for promotion for firefighters, but it threw out results of its last test after whites outperformed African Americans. White and Hispanic firefighters who had done well sued the city, which had acted to avoid liability under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited both intentional acts of employment discrimination on the basis of race and policies that had a disparate impact on the races. Both the District and U.S. Second Circuit Courts granted summary judgments for the city.

Issue—When New Haven discarded its examinations, did it discriminate against white and Hispanic firefighters in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?

Decision—Because the law violated the Civil Rights Act, the Court did not address whether it also violated the equal protection clause.

ReasonsJ. Kennedy (5–4) concluded that race-based action was impermissible unless the city could prove that it would have been liable under disparate-impact statutes, which burden it had not met. Since the law violated the Civil Right Act, the Court would not reach the equal protection issue. Kennedy reviewed the manner in which the test had been developed. He noted that one firefighter who had done well had spent more than $1,000 to prepare for the test and had to overcome learning disabilities, including dyslexia. The city abandoned the test because “too many whites and not enough minorities would be promoted were the lists to be certified.” This violated the law’s prohibition against making adverse employment actions because of an individual’s race. Past cases, like Richmond v. J. A. Croson Co., 488 U.S. 469 (1989), had limited remedial actions absent a “strong basis in evidence” that such actions were necessary. The city had ignored evidence that pointed to the exam’s validity and pointed to no evidence that it was not job-related.

J. Scalia, concurring, noted that the Court had merely postponed deciding whether such actions violated the equal protection clause. J. Alito, concurring, pointed to evidence that city politicians had sabotaged the test to curry favor with minority groups. The city’s primary concern was not about “violating the disparate-impact provision of Title VII but a simple desire to please a politically important racial constituency.”

J. Ginsburg, dissenting, denied that the white firefighters had any “vested right to promotion.” The firefighting profession has a legacy of racial discrimination, which the city was attempting to remedy. Individuals did raise questions about the test even before results came back. An intent to remedy the disparate impact of an exam differs from an intent to discriminate against majority-race applicants. Griggs v. Duke Power Co., 401 U.S. 424 (1971), indicated that the Court prohibits “not only overt discrimination but also practices that are fair in form, but discriminatory in operation.” New Haven had “ample cause to believe its selection process was flawed and not justified by business necessity.” J. Alito was wrong to equate “political considerations with unlawful discrimination.” New Haven did not engage in “race-based discrimination in violation of Title VII.”

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