MALDEF Reacts to Supreme Court Decision in Ricci v. Destefano

Court reviews Title VII of Civil Rights Act to split 5-4 in narrow ruling

June 29, 2009

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, the Supreme Court ruled that the City of New Haven’s decision not to certify firefighter promotional exam results, after learning that the test had a racially discriminatory impact on African Americans and Latinos, constituted improper race-based action against white firefighters who had scored well on the promotional exam. In a narrow ruling limited to analyzing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Supreme Court declared that employers are permitted to take intentional race-based action when there is a strong basis in evidence that an existing employment practice has a racially discriminatory impact.

“The Court took care to note that there are ‘few, if any, precedents in the courts of appeals discussing the issue [in this case],’” commented Henry Solano, MALDEF Interim President and General Counsel. “Today’s decision is not a criticism of the reasoning of the Circuit Court panel, on which Judge Sonia Sotomayor participated. On the contrary, the Supreme Court acknowledged the lack of legal precedent in this area and stated that its ‘task is to provide guidance to employers and courts’ in situations where there is no legal rule to reconcile competing non-discrimination principles,” continued Solano. Solano further noted that the rationale of the Circuit Court of Appeals panel was shared by four Supreme Court justices and seven Court of Appeals judges, both Republican and Democrat. “Justice Ginsburg in her dissent carefully reviewed the evidentiary record in arriving at her conclusion, something that a Supreme Court justice with trial court experience, which is currently lacking on the Court, is particularly well suited to do, especially in civil rights cases,” concluded Solano.

“Although we are disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision on the facts of this case, we are glad to see the Court describe the ‘important purpose’ of Title VII that ‘the workplace be an environment free of discrimination, where race is not a barrier to opportunity,’” stated Nina Perales, Southwest Regional Counsel for MALDEF. “The bottom line for this decision is that cities must comply with civil rights laws and avoid using promotional exams where there is a strong basis in evidence to conclude that the exams have a racially discriminatory impact. The Court today also reaffirmed the central role of voluntary compliance efforts by employers to comply with Congress’ efforts to eradicate workplace discrimination,’” continued Perales.

MALDEF filed an amicus brief in the case, along with the ACLU and LatinoJustice PRLDEF; the amicus brief focused on the argument that Congress has authority, under the 14th Amendment, to enact Title VII’s disparate impact standard and the Court should not accept the Plaintiffs’ invitation to invalidate the disparate impact standard. The Supreme Court ruling today reflected MALDEF’s position and rejected the contrary argument by the challengers as a “broad and inflexible formulation.”

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Copyright 2009 MALDEF — Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund