Firefighters from New Haven, Conn., on Wednesday exposed an enduring Supreme Court split, as the justices confronted the year's most anticipated racial discrimination case. A case from the New Haven Fire Department poses the questions: Just what is a job-related test? How should a city evaluate applicants for leadership positions? If a city thinks a test that was used will result in a lawsuit, does it have the right to abort the promotions and order a new test?
In 2003, the New Haven Fire Department in Connecticut gave an exam meant to gauge eligibility for promotions to lieutenant and captain. Scores for Hispanics and for African-Americans ranged from 34 to 59 percent of the scores for whites. Because of the way the promotions were structured, no African-American and only one Hispanic would have won any of the 15 promotions. The question then became whether the Civil Service Board would validate the test results.
After five days of hearings, the board decided the exam was flawed and threw out the results. White firefighters who would most likely have won the promotions if the test results would have been kept sued.
Initial reports indicate conservative justices showed sympathy for the white firefighters who did not receive the promotions. The court's liberal wing suggested that New Haven officials may have acted reasonably in determining that the test was flawed. After an hour-long oral argument, most signs hinted at a close decision later this year.
Here is a link to Nina Totenberg's excellent NPR piece outlining the issues.