Over the last 24 hours, much virtual ink has been spilled on a case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, Ricci v. DeStefano, because Judge Sonia Sotomayor — one of the judges handling the case at the Court of Appeals — has been nominated to the Court. (I’ve covered the case in various posts here.) From a Connecticut perspective, the Hartford Courant does its own recap here.
The question, frankly, is why such a fuss?
Back in September 2006, U.S. District Court Judge Janet Arterton issued a lengthy opinion in which she dismissed the firefighters reverse discrimination claims and found for the city of New Haven. Judge Arterton is no stranger to employment law cases, having represented mainly employees in private practice before getting appointed to the bench. The decision is well worth the read. Reasonable people can disagree with the outcome, but Judge Arterton’s decision hardly lacks logic or thorough reasoning.
The firefighters appealed and the case went up to the Second Circuit. Judge Sotomayor was one of three Second Circuit judges selected to serve on a panel to hear the case. In the summer of 2008, she and two other judges decided to affirm the district court’s decision.
The two other judges, Judges Pooler and Sack, and Judge Sotomayor all agreed that they did not have anything to add to Judge Arternon’s decision so they issued a "per curiam" opinion which, in essence, adopted the lower court’s reasoning. (I should note that they original issued a summary order on the case, later turning it into a "per curiam" decision. Summary orders are quite commonly used in the Second Circuit). While not an everyday occurrence, it’s not uncommon for courts to use "per curiam" decisions either. (Of course, perhaps the most famous "per curiam" decision was in Bush v. Gore, but that’s an argument for another day.)
Here was the essence of the the Second Circuit’s decision:
We affirm, for the reasons stated in the thorough, thoughtful, and well-reasoned opinion of the court below. Ricci v. DeStefano, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 73277, 2006 WL 2828419 (D.Conn., Sept. 28, 2006). In this case, the Civil Service Board found itself in the unfortunate position of having no good alternatives. We are not unsympathetic to the plaintiffs’ expression of frustration. Mr. Ricci, for example, who is dyslexic, made intensive efforts that appear to have resulted in his scoring highly on one of the exams, only to have it invalidated. But it simply does not follow that he has a viable Title VII claim. To the contrary, because the Board, in refusing to validate the exams, was simply trying to fulfill its obligations under Title VII when confronted with test results that had a disproportionate racial impact, its actions were protected.
The firefighters appealed to the Second Circuit again, asking the entire court to hear the case en banc (meaning that all 13 judges would hear the case). That request was rejected by a 7-6 margin and featured a spirited dissent by Judge Cabranes.
The case now is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court where another split decision is expected.
The attack on Judge Sotomayor from some on the Ricci case seems to focus on the fact that she and two other judges decided to dismiss the claim in a "per curiam" decision, rather than in a lengthy one. However, there are many reasons why a case might be decided in that fashion and to attribute and speculate as to the reasons it was used in the Ricci case seems to be reaching for an argument that might not otherwise exist. And regardless, there were many other judges in the Second Circuit who did not believe the case warranted any further decision either as determined by the en banc vote. Are all of them disqualifed from serving on the Second Circuit too?
Some critics have gone even further, claiming that her decision in the Ricci case showed that she "reads racial preferences and quotas into the Constitution, even to the point of dishonoring those who preserve our public safety."
All of these critcisms of Judge Sotomayor seem to be a reach for an argument that doesn’t really seem to exist based on her handling of the Ricci case. And it certainly doesn’t suggest that she is unqualifed to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. After all, if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the city, does that mean that the justices are also "reading racial preferences and quotas into the Constitution"? The answer is obvious: No.
So, what are we ultimately to make of the Ricci case? In my view, not much. It is, quite simply, a difficult decision in which very bright people can disagree. And judges don’t get to pick and choose the cases they are asked to judge.
As the Workplace Prof succienctly said last month, "One of the reasons that this case is so challenging and so divisive is that this case seems to be all about the framing of the issue. It is very difficult to separate that framing from the factual question of the parties’ subjective intent or the credibility question of whether to believe their assertions. The way that the facts and law get merged together make for a doctrinal mess. It seems like people talk past each other constantly."