La Shawn Barber

New Haven firefighter Frank Ricci did what he was supposed to do. He bought the recommended books and studied for a promotion exam. Despite his dyslexia, Ricci scored high enough to qualify for a promotion, but the department threw out all test results. No blacks and only two Hispanics scored high enough to be promoted.

Over a dozen white firefighters and one Hispanic filed suit against the city in 2004, claiming it violated their constitutional rights and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by discriminating against them based on race. Had the fire department certified the test results, however, the lower scorers likely would have sued the city under Title VII's "disparate impact" provision. The fire department was damned if it did and damned if it didn't.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the city and dismissed the case. A three-judge panel of a federal appeals court affirmed the dismissal. Bush-appointed judges sought to have the case re-heard, but the court declined by a vote of 7 to 6. Judge Jose Cabranes, a Clinton appointee who dissented, defined the issue this way:

"May a municipal employer disregard the results of a qualifying examination, which was carefully constructed to ensure race-neutrality, on the ground that the results of that examination yielded too many qualified applicants of one race and not enough of another?"

In denying the rehearing, the court contended that a government employer "faced with a prima facie case of disparate-impact liability under Title VII" does not violate the title or the Equal Protection clause by taking facially neutral, but race conscious, measures to avoid liability. With a collective straight face, the court claimed that throwing out the test because too many whites passed it was "facially race-neutral."

La Shawn Barber

Freelance writer La Shawn Barber blogs at the American Civil Rights Institute blog.