Demolition Specialists: The Supreme Court's 2008/2009 Term

The 2008-2009 term was certainly a busy one for the Supreme Court. It decided 79 cases, 23 of which, according to SCOTUSblog, were split 5-4. Of those 5-4 decisions, 16 were divided along ideological lines. A newly-available Alliance for Justice analysis of the term reveals that "the most ominous theme of the term was the repeated planting of bombs by the Roberts wing of the Court designed to detonate in future terms, including preparations to throw out the Voting Rights Act, eliminate disparate impact violations, dismantle campaign finance law or further erode the rights of criminal defendants."

Ricci v. DeStefano is an example of this approach to dismantling civil rights laws. Alliance for Justice Legal Director Bill Yeomans, an expert in civil rights law who spent decades enforcing civil rights laws with the Department of Justice, provided an insightful analysis of Ricci, which I'd like to share with you today.

Bill Yeomans on Ricci: Supreme Court Rebuilding Barriers?

In Ricci v. DeStefano, the five conservatives on the Supreme Court struck a blow against this nation's most effective weapon for eliminating discrimination from our workplaces: the disparate impact standard of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Over the strong dissent of four justices, the conservative majority held that New Haven, CT engaged in intentional discrimination against white firefighters when it rejected the results of tests for firefighter promotions because they disproportionately excluded African American and Hispanic candidates.

In 1971, in Griggs v. Duke Power Co., a unanimous Supreme Court held that Title VII prohibited employment practices that had a disparate impact on minorities and were not necessary for the job. In Chief Justice Burger's words, Title VII prohibited "employment procedures or testing mechanisms that operate as 'built-in headwinds' for minority groups..." Some tests were intentional devices to exclude minorities and women, while others were the result of sloppy employment practices. After Griggs, it was no longer necessary to prove that employers intended to discriminate. The focus was on whether hiring and promotion criteria tested for skills that were necessary to perform the job; no calculus tests for sanitation workers or strength tests for accountants. Griggs launched a generation of progress that uprooted entrenched discrimination and desegregated many of our nation's major police and fire departments.

Private plaintiffs, public interest litigators and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division broke down barriers to minority employment by pursuing litigation and negotiating consent decrees against dozens of states and localities, many of which hired on the basis of legacy, subjective criteria, or flawed employment tests that excluded qualified minority applicants. The result was more professional police and fire departments whose effectiveness increased because they looked more like the communities they served. Chicago, which operated segregated fire houses in 1974, increased African American representation in its fire department from 4% to 20% by 1995. In Los Angeles, the fire department went from 96% white in 1974 to more than 50% nonwhite by 2002, while in Boston minority representation in the firefighting ranks increased from 1% in 1974 to almost 40% by 2000.

Don't let these numbers fool you, however. As New Haven's own situation attests, discrimination and lack of minority representation on fire and police squads is still a very real problem. Though New Haven's population is more than 50% nonwhite, minorities only have an 18% representation in leadership roles within the fire department. Only one of 21 fire captains is African American. This disparity is what New Haven was trying to address.

Opponents of civil rights enforcement, however, are not concerned with these inequalities and fought from the start to eliminate disparate impact enforcement. They contended falsely that it led to quotas. They won a Pyrrhic victory when the Supreme Court, including Ricci author Justice Anthony Kennedy,, severely curtailed the effectiveness of disparate impact lawsuits in Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio. The groundwork for this assault on Title VII was laid in Ronald Reagan's Department of Justice by young anti-civil rights activists, including John Roberts and Samuel Alito. Fortunately, Congress responded by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which incorporated the disparate impact standard into the text of Title VII.

The Court's ruling in Ricci is the latest chapter in the efforts of right wing ideologues to subvert the disparate impact standard. The Court created a new standard, stating that the New Haven needed a "substantial basis in evidence" before it could reject the results of a test that had the overwhelming effect of excluding African Americans and Hispanics from promotion as firefighters. In effect, the Court said that the City would have to prove the case against itself and establish that it had committed a disparate impact violation before it could withdraw the test and start over by searching for a less discriminatory alternative. While the obligations of Title VII remain in full effect, the Court's decision is bound to prove to be a disincentive to employers who want to comply voluntarily with Title VII, but don't want to prove that they have violated Title VII.

In a striking departure from principles that govern appellate review, the Court reversed the case outright, rather than following its usual practice of sending the case back to the lower courts to apply the facts to the new standard in the first instance. The Court's eagerness to impose its judgment was unseemly.

It now falls to the executive branch -- through the Department of Justice, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Department of Labor -- to craft new guidance that will minimize the damage inflicted by the Court's ruling and ensure that Title VII's protections remain robust. Should those efforts come up short, Congress may have to consider whether it must step forward yet again to give force to Chief Justice Burger's simple statement in Griggs that, "[t]he objective of Congress in the enactment of Title VII is plain from the language of the statute. It was to achieve equality of employment opportunities and remove barriers that have operated in the past to favor an identifiable group of white employees over other employees."

For more analysis of this term and the impact Sonia Sotomayor could have upon the Supreme Court, please take a look at our in-depth end of term review.