TOPICS > Politics

Justices Reverse Sotomayor Ruling in Discrimination Case

June 29, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision Monday that white firefighters in Connecticut were unfairly denied promotions because of their race, reversing a decision supported by high court nominee Sonia Sotomayor when she was an appellate judge. Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal discusses the case with Gwen Ifill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. Supreme Court handed down a major decision today on race and job promotions. The 5-4 split ruling was in favor of white firefighters in New Haven, Connecticut. They claimed they were denied promotions based on race.

The outcome drew sharply different reactions from the city’s mayor and the firefighters’ attorney.

KAREN TORRE, attorney, New Haven firefighters: Right now, we’re just enjoying the absolute pleasure of having our position vindicated and giving some hope, actually, to all those firefighters, and police, and teachers, and other employees in the civil service who feel that their worth, their education, their skills doesn’t matter, and all that matters in this country so far is identity and race politics. And I think today we struck a below against that in favor of truly American ideals.

JOHN DESTEFANO, mayor, New Haven, Conn.: I have no doubt that the firefighters who brought the lawsuit genuinely felt that they had played by the rules, that they had done nothing wrong, and that they had been egregiously harmed.

I also have no doubt that today there is another set of firefighters who feel that the rules are constantly stacked against them and that, when they do finally start to get ahead, that the rules get changed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Supreme Court decision reversed a finding by a lower court in favor of the city of New Haven. The majority on that court included Judge Sonia Sotomayor, now a Supreme Court nominee.

A White House spokesman said today that today’s reversal should not affect Sotomayor’s Senate confirmation.

Now Gwen Ifill continues our lead story coverage.

The purposes of Title VII

GWEN IFILL: Today's ruling in the highly anticipated case involving the New Haven firefighters came on the last day of the Supreme Court term. The justices also bid farewell to one of their own, the retiring David Souter.

But the New Haven case, which could affect the nomination of the person in line to replace Souter, claimed center stage. Here to walk us through the day at the high court, as always, is Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal.

Marcia, we expected this outcome, but we didn't know why. Why?

MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal: Well, at the center of this Supreme Court case is the nation's major workplace discrimination law, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

And Title VII, just to sort of set this up, has really two purposes. It prohibits intentional discrimination on the basis of a worker's race, color, religion, color -- said color -- and national origin and gender. And that's known as disparate treatment discrimination, intentional discrimination.

But it also prohibits a more subtle form of discrimination that the law calls disparate impact discrimination. And that's when an employer has a policy or a practice that's neutral on its face but it has a disproportionately adverse effect on workers because of race, color, religion, et cetera.

GWEN IFILL: This case has often been referred to as a reverse discrimination case. What's the distinction between reverse discrimination and disparate impact?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, generally we think of discrimination on the basis of race, color, gender. The court has recognized reverse discrimination cases, and that's when we saw a new proliferation of discrimination suits brought by whites, basically.

In this case, the court said that the two purposes of Title VII were in tension with each other, and here's how that happened. The city of New Haven had the test for promotions. And when the results came back, it found that African-American and Hispanic firefighters -- with the exception of, I believe, two Hispanic firefighters -- would not be eligible for promotions to captain or lieutenant. That raised a red flag under disparate impact discrimination, that the city felt, if it went forward with the test results, it could be sued for violating Title VII's ban on disparate impact discrimination.

GWEN IFILL: But the justices said today fearing that you might be sued is not good enough.

MARCIA COYLE: That's correct. Justice Kennedy said that fear is not sufficient; you have to have a strong basis in evidence to believe that the test is flawed, that it's not job-related, or other alternative, less discriminatory tests were available.

He said that what happened here when the city decided not to go forward and certify the results, it engaged in disparate treatment discrimination, intentional discrimination, and you can't use fear of disparate impact discrimination in order to defend against that. You have to have a strong basis in evidence to believe you're going to be liable for violating Title VII.

Public and private-sector employees

GWEN IFILL: Now, this was a case of public employees, firefighters. Would this apply as well in private-sector employment?

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, Title VII covers both public and private employers.

GWEN IFILL: So what is the outcome of this, I mean, in terms of -- is there a ripple effect that's possible in private workplaces, as well as public workplaces?

MARCIA COYLE: Oh, yes, I think private employers are going to have to work through this new standard.

This was a 5-4 decision, and Justice Kennedy said there really were not many precedents in the lower courts on how to resolve the tension between these two provisions of Title VII.

Justice Ginsburg, who wrote a dissent on behalf of herself and Justices Souter, Stevens, and Breyer, sees no tension between these two, and they also disagreed very strongly. In fact, it's kind of remarkable how they looked at the facts in the record here concerning the tests, and the two wings of the court saw the facts very differently.

GWEN IFILL: Completely.

MARCIA COYLE: She said the tests were flawed, in fact, had multiple flaws and she would have read the two purposes of Title VII as complementary, not in tension with each other.

GWEN IFILL: Now, of course, we were watching this because one of the lower courts you mentioned, Judge Sotomayor sat on that court and was one of the people who allowed, at least, this case to proceed to the Supreme Court, or at least allowed -- set up the situation for it to be challenged in the Supreme Court by backing -- siding with the city.


GWEN IFILL: Do we think there's a ripple effect on her nomination?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, I'll say that, immediately after the decision, many of us were flooded with e-mails from groups that have opposed her nomination saying that this decision is a reflection on her judicial philosophy and judgment.

But, again, Justice Kennedy pointed out that there were no real lower court precedents on this issue and it was the Supreme Court's job to give guidance to the lower courts here.

And I should also note, too, that there was another circuit court that faced a very similar situation in Tennessee involving police officers' promotions. And they decided in the same way that Judge Sotomayor's panel had, applying what was existing law.

Justice Souter's last day

GWEN IFILL: I want to get to two other things that happened at the court today. One of them was the court's decision not to make a decision...


GWEN IFILL: ... on a case that we talked about, Hillary Clinton, the movie, and whether it was...


GWEN IFILL: ... fell under campaign finance law. How unusual is it to kick the can down the road like this?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, it's not unprecedented. It does happen occasionally. But it doesn't happen very often. And the court rescheduled argument for September 9th in the case, but it said it wanted specific questions addressed, and that's what raises a very interesting element to this case.

It asked the lawyers to argue in brief whether the Supreme Court should overrule two key precedents that put limits on contributions by corporations and unions in elections.

GWEN IFILL: Which is really what this was all about in the end, not so much about the movie.


GWEN IFILL: OK, I want to ask you about Justice Souter's last day, as well. He's sitting on the court. He's not normally known for being very emotive, but was there any emotion in his final day?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, there was. Chief Justice Roberts followed a tradition in the court in which he read aloud from a letter that was sent to Justice Souter and signed by all the justices, including retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, thanking him for his service and basically saying how much they're going to miss him.

And then he, as tradition goes, since he was sitting there today, he read from a letter that he had written in response, saying how much service on the court for almost two decades has meant to him, as well as how much he valued the collegiality of the other members of the court.

GWEN IFILL: Now, if another court justice isn't confirmed by September 9th, theoretically this case that they're going to re-hear might go forward with eight justices?

MARCIA COYLE: It could. It could be decided by eight. If they haven't reached a decision by the time Judge Sotomayor is confirmed, if she is confirmed, Judge Sotomayor would be able to listen to the recording of the oral arguments, read the briefs, and participate in the decision, even though she wasn't there when it was actually argued.

GWEN IFILL: Marcia Coyle, National Law Journal, as always, thank you.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure.