NEW HAVEN, Conn. — A group of white firefighters who won a discrimination case before the U.S. Supreme Court received their promotion badges Thursday to cheers and whistles in an emotional ceremony that provided symbolic recognition of their victory.
“I’m just thrilled it happened,” said newly promoted Capt. Gary Carbone. “It felt like time stood still. I was so excited to get the badge.”
The high court ruled in June that New Haven officials violated white firefighters’ civil rights when they threw out 2003 test results in which too few minorities did well.
The case became an issue in confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who ruled against the white firefighters when she served on a federal appeals court.
Fourteen firefighters who sued were promoted to lieutenant and captain. Another 10 firefighters, including four minorities, who took the 2003 tests but were not plaintiffs in the court case also will be promoted.
“Today is a great day. It takes a lot of stress off our shoulders. We just can’t wait to get up there and get our badges,” said one of the plaintiffs, Steven Durand, who was accepting his promotion to lieutenant.
Durand, 36, predicted the case would result in “sweeping changes” around the country in how promotions are handled.
Dennis Thompson, an attorney for black firefighters who tried unsuccessfully last month to block the promotions of the plaintiffs, said Wednesday that his clients congratulate the newly promoted firefighters.
“Nobody is going to say these guys are unqualified,” Thompson said.
But Thompson, who is trying to intervene in federal court in New Haven to challenge the validity of the exams now that they have been certified, said the fight is not over because the black firefighters were not heard. In other cases cities have been required to make more promotions than planned, he said.
“They understand this is a 15-round fight,” Thompson said of his clients. “You don’t decide who won in Round 3.”
That prompted an angry reaction from Karen Torre, attorney for the white firefighters.
“Attorney Thompson’s provocations and promise, to me, only demonstrates the need for the Supreme Court to take up the issue of the constitutionality of that provision of Title VII that allows such people to paralyze local governments and the civil service and hold the public hostage to endless litigation over the issue of race,” Torre said in a statement.
David Rosen, an attorney for a black New Haven firefighter who is suing the city and arguing he was unfairly denied a promotion, said Wednesday that his client, Michael Briscoe, is happy for the promoted firefighters and has congratulated several of them.
“He’s not trying to take a slot away from one of the people being promoted,” Rosen said. “There are other vacant positions.”
Frank Ricci, the lead plaintiff among the white firefighters, told the Senate in July during Sotomayor’s confirmation process that the lower court ruling against him “divides people who don’t wish to be divided along racial lines.”
Ricci told the panel that “achievement is neither limited nor determined by one’s race but by one’s skills, dedication, commitment and character.”