WASHINGTON -- Wednesday morning, a lawyer defending in the Supreme Court what the city of New Haven, Conn., did to Frank Ricci and 17 other white firemen (including one Hispanic) was not 20 seconds into his argument when Chief Justice John Roberts interrupted to ask: Would it have been lawful if the city had decided to disregard the results of the exam to select firemen for promotion because it selected too many black and too few white candidates?
In 2003, the city gave promotion exams -- prepared by a firm specializing in employment tests, and approved, as federal law requires, by independent experts -- to 118 candidates, 27 of them black. None of the blacks did well enough to qualify for the 15 immediately available promotions. After a rabble-rousing minister with close ties to the mayor disrupted meetings and warned of dire political consequences if the city promoted persons from the list generated by the exams, the city said: No one will be promoted.
The city called this a "race-neutral" outcome because no group was disadvantaged more than any other. So, New Haven's idea of equal treatment is to equally deny promotions to those who did not earn them and those, including Ricci, who did.
Ricci may be the rock upon which America's racial spoils system finally founders. He prepared for the 2003 exams by quitting his second job, buying the more than $1,000 worth of books the city recommended, paying to have them read onto audiotapes (he is dyslexic), taking practice tests and practice interviews. His studying -- sometimes 13 hours a day -- earned him the sixth-highest score on the exam. He and others denied promotions sued, charging violations of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection of the law.
The city claims that the 1964 act (BEG ITAL)compelled(END ITAL) it to disregard the exam results. The act makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate against an individual regarding the "terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because of such individual's race." And two Senate supporters of the 1964 act, both of them leading liberals (Pennsylvania Democrat Joseph Clark and New Jersey Republican Clifford Case), insisted that it would not require "that employers abandon bona fide qualification tests where, because of differences in background and educations, members of some groups are able to perform better on these tests than members of other groups."