Promotion day arrives for white Conn. firefighters

AP News
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Posted: Dec 11, 2009 8:27 AM

Amid blaring bagpipes, the crowd erupted with even louder cheers, whistles and shouts when firefighters entered a high school auditorium to receive their promotional badges after a 5-year legal battle that ended with a U.S. Supreme Court victory.

The high court ruled in June that New Haven officials violated white firefighters' civil rights when they threw out 2003 test results in which too few minorities did well.

Fourteen firefighters who sued were promoted to lieutenant and captain. Another 10 firefighters, including four minorities, who took the 2003 tests but were not plaintiffs in the court case also were promoted along with an inspector.

"I'm just thrilled it happened," said newly promoted Capt. Gary Carbone, one of the plaintiffs. "It felt like time stood still. I was so excited to get the badge."

The crowd of several hundred gave the firefighters standing ovations as they were sworn in.

"Today we acknowledge ... the training, experience, character and sacrifice of these 25 officers who take on new leadership roles in this great department," said New Haven Mayor John DeStefano. "It's a challenge that we all acknowledge _ that I acknowledge _ has been earned by them."

The case became an issue in confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who ruled against the white firefighters when she served on a federal appeals court.

Another plaintiff, Steven Durand, who was accepting his promotion to lieutenant, predicted the case would result in "sweeping changes" around the country in how promotions are handled.

"Today is a great day. It takes a lot of stress off our shoulders," said Durand.

Cindy Parker, whose son Chris was promoted to lieutenant, said her son studied for six months for the exam while his wife was pregnant.

"They just worked so hard for this. God bless them," Parker said.

Ben Vargas, the only Hispanic among the plaintiffs who was promoted to captain, called the ceremony "vindication" for a hard-fought legal battle.

"It turned out to benefit the entire country," Vargas said.

Vargas said firefighters did not allow the dispute to affect their performance.

"When that bell rings all that stuff goes out the window," he said.

Dennis Thompson, an attorney for black firefighters who tried unsuccessfully last month to block the plaintiffs' promotions, said Wednesday that his clients congratulate the newly promoted firefighters.

"Nobody is going to say these guys are unqualified," Thompson said.

But Thompson, who is trying to intervene in federal court in New Haven to challenge the validity of the exams now that they have been certified, said the fight is not over because the black firefighters were not heard. In other cases cities have been required to make more promotions than planned, he said.

"They understand this is a 15-round fight," Thompson said of his clients. "You don't decide who won in Round 3."

That prompted an angry reaction from Karen Torre, attorney for the white firefighters.

"Attorney Thompson's provocations and promise, to me, only demonstrates the need for the Supreme Court to take up the issue of the constitutionality of that provision of Title VII that allows such people to paralyze local governments and the civil service and hold the public hostage to endless litigation over the issue of race," Torre said in a statement.

David Rosen, an attorney for a black New Haven firefighter who is suing the city and arguing he was unfairly denied a promotion, said Wednesday that his client, Michael Briscoe, is happy for the promoted firefighters and has congratulated several of them.

"He's not trying to take a slot away from one of the people being promoted," Rosen said. "There are other vacant positions."