Judge Sotomayor, New Haven and Reverse Discrimination

Along with bogus charges of racism, we are now hearing rumblings of discontent regarding Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor’s ruling in the infamous New Haven firefighters’ reverse discrimination case.

First, a little background.

New Haven, CT adopted a written exam in 2003 for the purpose of determining which of the city’s fire fighters are eligible for promotion to Lieutenant and Captain within the department. The city ended up throwing the test out a year later, after determining that no eligible black workers had passed the exam.

A white fire fighter by the name of Frank Ricci scored exceptionally high on the test, and would have received the promotion, had the test not been deemed inadmissable by the city. Ricci in turn sued the city of New Haven for reverse discrimination, claiming that he was in effect losing his rightful promotion as a result of a policy that catered to blacks and minorities.

The trial court disagreed, and Frank Ricci lost the case.

Ricci appealed the lower court’s decision to the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals, where it fell into the lap of Judge Sonia Sotomayor (and 3 other judges, as part of a panel. For the sake of this post, we’ll just talk about Sonia Sotomayor). Sotomayor rejected the appeal, upholding the lower court’s ruling. The case is currently being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, with a ruling expected by late June of this year.

Judge Sotomayor’s decision was a controversial  one, especially among conservatives, who tend to believe she should have sided with the fire fighters.

If one truly understands how the oft-squeaky wheels of justice turn, and the responsibilities of an appeals court judge, the case isn’t quite as controversial after all… and one begins to see it has less to do with Judge Sotomayor and more to do with the legal precedent she had no choice but to utilize in making her decision.

The city of New Haven did not simply throw the written test out because it felt like it, nor was the test deemed inadmissable by a single party, hell-bent on building a blacks-only department.

Hardly.

The test was found to be in violation of Title VII, which is the federal civil rights law that requires employers to consider the racial consequences of any hiring or promotion practice. Whether on purpose or inadvertent, if the practice excludes minorities, it is illegal. The New Haven test, according to the law, was an illegal promotion tool, as eligible black fire fighters were not able to pass it. As a result, the city had no choice but to throw the test out.

If one is to take issue with this situation, the issue must be taken with the law itself- Title VII- not with the city’s actions, nor the judges’ rulings on the case.

The city, as well as the trial court, and most especially the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals, were simply following the applicable law.

Most would agree, whenever possible, it is important that a judge apply the already-written law(s) when making a ruling, and follow the constitution to its letter. Generally speaking, it is inappropriate for a judge to disregard current laws in making a decision on a case. The law is the law, no one is above it, and if a law exists when a case is heard, that law must be followed.

This is exactly what Judge Sotomayor did when ruling against Frank Ricci of the New Haven Fire Department. Her ruling was a direct result of her following an already existing law.

Period.

 The 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals was not the appropriate venue to fight the merits of Title VII, and whether or not the law lends itself to the creation of reverse discrimination. Judge Sotomayor was charged with making a decision based on the laws that are already in place- and determining whether the original trial court had correctly utilized the applicable law in making its ruling.

So that’s exactly what she did, and did so using the strong legal precedent that had already been set by her court, her jurisdiction- the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals.

As the GOP knows all-too-well, for Judge Sotomayor to have ruled any other way, her decision would have amounted to Judicial Activism.

Ironically enough, many key Republicans have voiced concerns over Sotomayor, claiming that they are worried she may be a Judicial Activist.

Funny, considering how up-in-arms these same people are today as a result of her refusing to do just that in the New Haven case. 

Judicial Activism occurs when a judge legislates from the bench. Typically, it is a judge’s responsibility to apply applicable law- using legal precedent- in making his/her rulings. Creating new laws is the responsibility of Congress- the Legislative Branch of government. When a judge attempts to circumvent written law, he/she is called a Judicial Activist.

Some famous cases involving judicial activism include Dred Scott, Roe v. Wade, Brown v. The Board of Education and Plessy v. Ferguson. While landmark cases for sure, their rulings were the response to scenarios in which no previous legal precedent existed, and so judges had no applicable law to fall back on. Therefore, they had to interpret the Constitution, resulting in a ruling that in effect created its own legal precedent for future cases to utilize.

Generally speaking, I am no fan of Judicial Activism. I think the law is in place for a reason, and if I disagree with a law, the proper venue for me to express my dissatisfaction is with my congressional representatives. They are the people charged with making the laws, while judges are responsible for upholding them, as written.

I don’t know how I feel about the New Haven case. 

I  sympathize with Frank Ricci. I learned, while researching this case, that he is dyslexic, and had to work exceptionally hard to pass the test- let alone score as highly as he did.

However, I also sympathize with any hard-working minority, who as the result of a racially-skewed test, is effectively shut out of a promotion process that he or she deserves to be a part of as much as anyone else.

Overall, I am happy that a law such as Title VII is on the books, and I’m happier that it’s a federal law. To me, any law that makes discrimination illegal in all 50 states certainly has its merits.

If anyone, I fault the city of New Haven in this case. Had they come up with a non-biased test to begin with, both Frank Ricci and any other qualified employee would have been promoted… and everyone would be happy. I applaud the city for taking the steps necessary to correct its error by throwing out the test, but I mourn the casualties such an action created. Sometimes the right thing to do is not the easy thing to do… and sometimes when we make mistakes- even honest ones- it’s the innocent bystanders that are hurt the most.

Frank Ricci, it seems, has suffered quite a bit, as have other hard-working minority fire fighters. Every last one of them deserved a chance at bettering themselves… and yet all of them have suffered greatly.

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