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White Firefighters Win Closely-Watched Employment Case

The U.S. Supreme Court says a city discriminated when it canceled results of promotion tests after minorities did poorly. Transcript of radio broadcast:

This is the VOA Special English Economics Report.

The United States Supreme Court began its summer break this week. One of the last decisions of its term will likely cause employers to take greater care in how they choose workers to promote.

The case involved tests that the city of New Haven, Connecticut, gave to firefighters in two thousand three. Minorities were heavily involved in the testing process because of disputes over earlier examinations. But the only firefighters who qualified for immediate promotion to lieutenant or captain were whites and two Hispanics, no blacks.

City officials believed that offering promotions based on the results would violate the nineteen sixty-four Civil Rights Act. Title seven of that federal law says employers cannot discriminate based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

But it not only bars "disparate treatment." It also bars "disparate impact" -- actions that are not meant to discriminate but in fact disproportionately harm minorities.

The city canceled the test results, fearing legal claims by minorities who failed the exams. Instead, white and Hispanic firefighters who passed went to court. Their case reached the Supreme Court, and in a five-to-four decision on Monday they won.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion. "The City," he said, "rejected the test results solely because the higher scoring candidates were white." Fear of legal action alone, he said, "cannot justify an employer's reliance on race" if it hurts qualified individuals.

Writing for the dissenters, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said the white firefighters who scored high "understandably attract this Court's sympathy." But, she said, they had no right to a promotion.

The majority found that the city failed to prove a disparate impact violation. But the court did not rule on the constitutionality of the provision itself. Still, Kevin Russell, a lawyer who specializes in Supreme Court cases, says the ruling puts all employers to a task. They have to make sure a test is truly unlawful before changing it.

Three judges on a federal appeals court had earlier sided with the city of New Haven. Their ruling, now reversed by the Supreme Court, was not unusual. But the case got special attention because one of the judges was Sonia Sotomayor.

President Obama has nominated her to replace retiring Justice David Souter on the Supreme Court. Her Senate confirmation hearings are set to begin July thirteenth.

And that's the VOA Special English Economics Report, written by Mario Ritter. I'm Steve Ember.