WASHINGTON — Firefighters from New Haven, Conn., on Wednesday exposed an enduring Supreme Court split, as the justices confronted the year’s most anticipated racial discrimination case.
Conservative justices showed sympathy for white firefighters who were passed over for promotion. The court’s liberal wing suggested that New Haven officials may have acted reasonably. After an hourlong oral argument, most signs hinted at a close decision later this year.
“The court is not fully in agreement on these questions,” noted Gregory S. Coleman, the Texas-based attorney for the white firefighters.
The case, Ricci v. DeStefano, differs from the classic affirmative action disputes that have divided the court previously in areas such as college admissions. It also could end anticlimactically, if the court follows the Obama administration’s urging to send the case back for more fact-finding.
Particularly among the most conservative justices Wednesday, however, New Haven’s refusal to promote white firefighters who had scored well on written tests seemed acutely discriminatory.
“You had some applicants who were winners, and their promotions were set aside,” Justice Antonin Scalia said.
The case arises from New Haven’s efforts in 2003 to promote officers.
The case…differs from the classic affirmative action disputes that have divided the court previously in areas such as college admissions.