The Supreme Court has an opportunity to reaffirm or reshape the
nation's civil rights laws as it faces a rare confluence of cases over
the next two weeks, including a high-profile challenge brought by white
firefighters who claim they lost out on promotions because of the
"color of their skin."
The cases also touch on the Voting Rights Act, the need to provide
English classes for immigrant children and, more tangentially,
discriminatory mortgage lending.
The most emotionally charged case is from the New Haven, Conn.,
firefighters, whose complaints define the real-life quandary that
sometimes accompanies government efforts to ensure racial equality.
The firefighters accuse city officials of violating civil rights
laws and the Constitution by throwing out a promotions test on which
they performed well but no blacks scored high enough to be eligible.
The city responds that relying on test results with such wide racial
discrepancies could have violated federal law and left them open to
being sued by minorities.
The court will hear the arguments, along with the others, in the midst
of an evolving national conversation about the role of race and
diversity and in the wake of the historic presidential election.
"Each of these cases goes to the ability of our society to achieve
opportunity, fairness and ultimately to our ability to be the democracy
that we aspire to be," said John Payton, president and director-counsel
of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "We've made tremendous
progress as a society, and some of that progress is having in place
anti-discriminatory" laws to ensure it continues.
His organization calls for the court in each case to affirm a
vigorous role for government in recognizing the need for race-conscious
But Edward Blum, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise
Institute, envisions a chance for the court to acknowledge the strides
that the country has made, even if it decides each case narrowly.
The court could "send a signal to government units that race and
ethnicity should play a smaller and smaller part in their decisions,"
He said he thinks the court took the firefighter case "because it
wants to make a statement. And of all the cases involving race and
ethnicity, I think this is the easiest for the court to answer."
The justices are deeply divided about government policies involving
race, even if Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has shown no such
ambivalence. His view was evident quickly, when in a first-term dissent
he lamented the "sordid business" of dividing individuals by race.
Others on the court seem just as firm, but on both sides of the
issue. That often leaves Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, generally
skeptical of race-based policies, as the target for opposing lawyers.
It also means the court's decisions are often nuanced, narrowed by
the facts of the case and the intricacies of the law at hand, rather
than laden with the broad pronouncements that often accompany public
and political discussions of race.
"People see Supreme Court decisions as deciding these great
questions for the country," said Washington lawyer Virginia A. Seitz,
who has defended race-conscious policies before the court. "But lawyers
see it another way, and I think the court sees it another way."
Still, the case of the firefighters, who have dubbed themselves the
New Haven 20 and even have a Web site and T-shirts, provides the court
a particularly human example of what they say is government
intervention that goes so far to protect minorities that it
discriminates against whites.
"It's all hot-button," Payton acknowledges.
The lead plaintiff, Frank Ricci, is a veteran firefighter who said
in sworn statements that he spent thousands of dollars in preparation
and studied for months for the exam. Ricci said he is dyslexic, so he
had tapes made of the test materials and listened to them on his
The firefighters' longtime attorney, Karen Lee Torre, did not allow
her clients to talk to reporters -- other than for a segment on
conservative commentator Sean Hannity's show on Fox News -- but Ricci
said in a sworn statement, "I relied in good faith on the promise that
effort and not race would determine who would be promoted."