Why Sotomayor rejected the New Haven firefighters' claim.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
May 27 2009 10:49 AM

Bad Test

Sonia Sotomayor rejected the New Haven firefighters' claim because it threatened to burn down civil rights law.

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Conservatives think the law against disparate impact discrimination does more harm than good. For instance, John McWhorter, writing for the New Republic, portrays New Haven's position in Ricci as the latest iteration of the tired argument that standardized tests are "culturally biased" against racial minorities. McWhorter decries the "rhetorical contortions that excuse black people from challenging examinations." And Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom insist in the Wall Street Journal that even "sharp racial disparities" in testing results "are not an argument for racial quotas." Both McWhorter and the Thernstroms worry that a law that is premised on lower performance by racial minorities has become self-fulfilling: Such racial disparities, the Thernstroms admonish, "should not be regarded as a permanent fact of life."

But, properly applied, disparate impact law doesn't excuse poor performance, nor does it require quotas. Instead it smokes out hidden bigotry and requires employers to avoid unnecessary segregation of the work force. Suppose an employer wants to keep women out. Knowing that he can't just put a "women need not apply" sign in his window, he might use a proxy, such as a weightlifting test, knowing that women on average have less upper body strength than men. The law against disparate impact discrimination is designed to reveal such hidden bias. Now, suppose an employer has no desire to discriminate against women but uses a weightlifting test simply because he thinks, all other things equal, stronger employees are better than weaker ones. Disparate impact law also prohibits this: It requires the employer to reconsider job qualifications that favor one race or sex, unjustifiably.

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Of course, there might be a good reason to prefer people who are physically stronger—or who score higher on a written exam. The law gives employers a chance to prove that the discriminatory criteria are job-related. The idea, then, isn't to make an employer hire less qualified women or minorities over more qualified men or whites. It's to make sure the employer is testing for job qualifications, not unrelated ones.

Race discrimination has locked minorities into poor neighborhoods with failing schools for generations: As a result, blacks, as a group, continue to perform less well on written exams than other races. Perhaps New Haven's black candidates could overcome these disadvantages by studying harder, like Frank Ricci did. But Ricci took extraordinary steps to ace the test—six months off work to prepare and $1,000 on tutoring. An equal-opportunity law that's premised on everyone taking such steps isn't likely to do much good in the real world of scarce time and money. And would encouraging the equivalent of intense cramming for the final really help employers select the best firefighter for the job?

Prohibiting tests that needlessly screen out underrepresented groups is a sensible way to ensure that employers have both qualified and integrated work forces. That's why Sotomayor and the 2nd Circuit rejected Ricci's claim. The timing of New Haven's decision is what makes it look so bad: It was a cruel bait-and-switch to reject the results after Ricci and others had studied for the exam and done well. But Ricci isn't attacking the timing of New Haven's decision; he's attacking the city for considering the racial impact of the exam. And that's exactly what disparate impact requires an employer to consider. Ricci's position threatens to burn down one of the nation's most important civil rights laws. Even in the improved racial climate of the Obama era, that should set off alarms.

Richard Thompson Ford teaches at Stanford Law School. His latest books are Rights Gone Wrong: How Law Corrupts the Struggle for Equality and Universal Rights Down to Earth.