WASHINGTON, June 29 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Monday federal civil rights law can be used to ban discrimination against whites.
Key swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the court's four-member conservative bloc to form the majority and wrote the prevailing opinion, which could be revolutionary in application.
Though the case was brought by 20 white firefighters in New Haven, Conn. -- including one white Hispanic -- whose passing scores on a promotion test were thrown out because no blacks passed, the decision could affect the long-term fate of affirmative action in the United States. The decision could figure prominently in hiring, firing and promotions when minorities are pitted against whites.
The 2003 exam was designed to select 15 candidates for captain and lieutenant. When no blacks and only one Hispanic scored a passing grade, the city decided not to use the results for promotions, saying it did not want exposure to suits from blacks and Hispanics.
Citing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination on the basis of race or sex, the white candidates filed suit. But a federal judge and a federal appeals court ruled for the city.
Their petition to the Supreme Court said the successful candidates had "expended significant sums, studied intensely and sacrificed mightily to qualify for promotions to captain and lieutenant pursuant to a professionally developed examination process. Their efforts paid off as they passed and, based on their performance, stood immediately to be promoted. Citing petitioners' race, (the city) refused to promote them and left the positions vacant in response to the exams' racially disproportionate results ... "
Monday's Supreme Court ruling reverses the lower court, and said the city's action violates civil rights law.
The majority opinion acknowledges the city was put in a hard place, but, "We conclude that race-based action like the city's in this case is impermissible under (civil rights law) unless the employer can demonstrate a strong basis in evidence that, had it not taken the action, it would have been liable under the disparate-impact statute," Kennedy wrote. "(City officials), we further determine, cannot meet that threshold standard."
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by the court's three other liberals, dissented. "It took decades of persistent effort, advanced by (civil rights law) litigation, to open firefighting posts to members of racial minorities," Ginsburg wrote. "The white firefighters who scored high on New Haven's promotional exams understandably attract this court's sympathy. But they had no vested right to promotion. Nor have other persons received promotions in preference to them."