Ricci Case Overturned

Ken AshfordSupreme CourtLeave a Comment

The US Supreme Court overturned the Second Circuit in the Ricci case, aka the "white firefighters case", this morning.  The court held that it was wrong for the Town of New Haven to deny promotions to white firefighters after it appeared that the firefighters' exam was racially biased.  The outcome was 5-4 along predictable lines: Kennedy, Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, and Alito in the majority, with Ginsburg, Stevens, Souter, and Breyer dissenting.  Kennedy, of course, was the swing.

The case probably would have gone unnoticed but for the fact that (a) Supreme Court nominee Sotomayor was an appellate judge on the lower case and (b) the case involved "reverse discrimination" against whites.

Conservatives are predictably crowing about the case — how it shows (apparently) that Sotomayor is anti-white or some such nonsense, and how the Supreme Court has now "slapped" her down.  The Judicial Confirmation Network, for example, writes:

"Frank Ricci finally got his day in court, despite the judging of Sonia Sotomayor, which all nine Justices of U.S. Supreme Court have now confirmed was in error.

"Usually, poor performance in any profession is not rewarded with the highest job offer in the entire profession.

"What Judge Sotomayor did in Ricci was the equivalent of a pilot error resulting in a bad plane crash. And now the pilot is being offered to fly Air Force One."

Of course, this is just bullshit.  First of all, as I said, "all nine justices" of the Supreme Court did not vote to overturn.  It was 5-4. [UPDATE:  Not to be outdone, Rush Limbaugh lies about that final tally and the court's holding, stating, "The court found that she was indeed a racist… a nine-zip decision"]

Secondly, one of the plaintiffs that "Sotomayor" ruled against (the "white" firefighters) was latino, just like Sotomayor. 

Finally, Sotomayor merely joined the Second Circuit opinion, which was unanimously held by a panel of the Second Circuit – a panel that included a Republican judge.  In fact, the Second Circuit didn't even write an opinion at all, save a brief sentence or two saying that they agreed with the opinion of the lower court.

And actually, when you do the actual tally, 11 out of the 21 federal judges to rule on Ricci ruled as Sotomayor did. 

What layman don't understand, and what hacks often exploit, is the fact that the legal issues in any Supreme Court case are vague and reside in some gray area.  That's why the Supreme Court addresses them.  So it is incorrect that Sotomayor is a "bad judge" who got the law "wrong".  In fact, it looks like Sotomayor and her collegaues were following precedent as it existed at the time.  And today, the Supreme Court came along and changed that precedent.

And FWIW, John Roberts was on the Court of Appeals in Hamden v. RumsfeldThat was overturned by the Supreme Court 5-3, after Roberts was named for Chief Justice of the highest court.  Where was the outcry then about what a terrible judge Roberts was?

The SCOTUS opinion is available here (PDF).