In an effort to go from a homogeneous fire department to a diverse and equitable force, common sense and civil rights law suggest that our nation's fire departments take a long look at the way they recruit, hire, promote and support firefighters -- weeding out any processes that are discriminatory either intentionally or in effect. One such effort in New Haven became entangled in a lawsuit, reflecting just how difficult it is to make change.
As anyone who followed Justice Sotomayor's nomination probably knows, Ricci v. DeStefano involved a lawsuit by white firefighter promotion exam candidates, who disagreed with the City of New Haven's decision to hold off certifying the results of an examination based on the City's concern that the test disproportionately screened out minority candidates, and might not be valid. The exam had two main components, oral and written, and New Haven weighed the components of the exam differently than other cities, favoring the written component. The group of white firefighters who brought suit argued that the City's decision was race-based, and violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits employment discrimination. The Supreme Court agreed.
Needless to say, the Supreme Court's decision was controversial. How could New Haven's decision to set aside a potentially discriminatory test itself be discriminatory? According to Sarah Crawford from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Ricci decision "ignores the plain language of Title VII, congressional intent and established precedent.” And, indeed, three months after the Supreme Court's decision, an African American firefighter in New Haven filed another lawsuit against the City, this time arguing that he was unfairly denied promotion to lieutenant because of the way that the city scored its 2003 exam. According to Michael Briscoe, who brought the case, the norm for promotional exams is to weigh the oral portion of the exam at 70 percent, as oral exams are a fairer and more accurate way to judge the skills of a firefighter. Briscoe claims that the city knew that its decision to weight the written portion of the exam at 60% would have a disparate impact on minorities. Although Briscoe says he had the highest score in the department on the oral section of the exam, he ended up ranked 24th and thus did not qualify for a promotion. Had the exam had been weighted like other city's tests, more African-Americans would have scored well enough to be promoted. The outcome of the new case remains to be seen.
There are other cases about the employment policies of fire departments bubbling up through the courts. The Supreme Court recently agreed to hear argument in Lewis v. Chicago, which was brought by 6,000 black applicants to challenge a hiring exam administered by the city of Chicago in 1995. Though a federal judge in Chicago ruled that the city had, indeed, discriminated against black candidates, the case was stalled by the city's argument that the firefighters had delayed more than a year before challenging the test results, therefore losing their right to bring suit. The firefighters argued that the suit was timely because the clock shouldn't start ticking until the fire department uses the test results to make hiring decisions, not when the exam is graded. Still, the Court of Appeals elected to throw out the case.
Making change is tough, but it remains crucial that we keep pushing toward a fairer future. We should take the mandate of the International Association of Firefighters Union seriously, and continue efforts to ensure a high level of diversity in our public institutions. And the courts need to be available to enforce the right to equal opportunity.
(Photo by nestor galina.)