This is a good look:
The Supreme Court dealt a potentially costly defeat to the city of Chicago Monday, reinstating a discrimination ruling in favor of 6,000 black applicants for firefighting jobs in the 1990s.
In a 9-0 decision, the justices said Chicago had used an entry-level test for the Chicago Fire Department that had a “disparate impact” based on race. And therefore, they said, the city was liable for paying damages to those applicants who had “qualified” scores on the test, but were excluded in favor of those who scored higher.
Earlier this year, a lawyer for black applicants estimated the total damages in the case could reach $100 million.
Monday’s ruling is the latest twist in a long-running set of lawsuits over the use of civil service exams for hiring police and firefighters, both in Chicago and elsewhere. Justice Antonin Scalia, speaking at the court Monday, said he and his colleagues were applying the civil rights laws as written by Congress, not necessarily as he and others think it should be written. Since 1991, federal law has made it illegal for employers to use an “employment practice” that had a “disparate impact on the basis of race.”
The Chicago case began in 1995 when 26,000 applicants took a written test to become a city firefighter. Faced with the large number applicants for only several hundred jobs, the city decided it would only consider those who scored 89 or above.
This cut-off score excluded a high percentage of the minority applicants. And after a trial in 2005, U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall ruled the test had an illegal “disparate impact” because the city had not justified the use of the cut-off score. Experts had testified that applicants who scored in the 70s or 80s were shown to be capable of succeeding as firefighters.
The city did not contest that conclusion, but it won a reversal from the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals on a procedural technicality. The appellate judges said the applicants had waited too long to sue. They had not sued during the year when the test results were released, but sued only after the scores were used to decide who would be hired.