In the last day of its current session, and the last day of Justice David Souter, the Supreme Court today handed down a 5-4 ruling that stated that Frank Ricci and several other firefighters from New Haven, CT, were discriminated against when the city threw out the results of their promotion exam when very few minorities passed. The case, Ricci v. DeStefano, had been dismissed twice, the last time by a three-judge Court of Appeals that included current Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.
I think this decision was by far the correct one. Even the dissenting opinion, voiced by Justice Ginsburg, had sympathy for the seeming unfairness inflicted on the firefighters. The decision reaffirms merit-based promotion, not those based on racial quotas out of fear of being labelled racist. In a larger sense, it calls into question the efficacy of affirmative action in that it highlights the injustice when society sees hiring, firing, advancement, and any other kind of compensation through racially tinted glasses, no matter which race is the beneficiary or the downtrodden.
I don’t like to view people as members of identity groups or blocs; rather, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. admonished, we ought to judge each individual not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. If an exam is fair, which this one appears to be, then it’s not discrimination if a certain level of minorities don’t pass it. Indeed, throwing out the test, just like affirmative action as a whole, is a cheap shortcut, a way of overlooking the underlying socioeconomic and educational reasons why minorities have societal difficulties. The goal of affirmative action should be to eventually end, but you don’t hear that from its most impassioned advocates. In effect, it’s like saying, “We don’t want to deal with teaching you how to succeed – here’s a perk for you.” And in that way affirmative action doesn’t help minorities at all, because it enforces the belief that minorities are intrinsically unable to make it without it. I refuse to accept that, as I believe each of us has it within us to fail or succeed on our own merits and failings.
What does this do to Sotomayor’s nomination? It might make her confirmation hearing a bit hairier, but I believe she’ll still be confirmed regardless. I’m still deeply uncomfortable with her apparent way of thinking that sees the world, including law, through gender and ethnic eyes. The law is the law, and “empathy” and identity games ought not play a role in supposedly blind justice.