The Supreme Court on April 22 will hear arguments on a case the New York Times calls the Roberts court's first major confrontation with claims of racial discrimination in employment. The case, which concerns a firefighter promotional exam in New Haven, Conn., will require the justices to choose between conflicting conceptions of the government's role in ensuring fair treatment regardless of race. Firefighter Frank Ricci says he came in sixth among the 77 candidates who took the exam. But the city threw out the test, because none of the 19 African-American firefighters who took it qualified for promotion.
Ricci and 17 other white firefighters sued the city, alleging racial discrimination. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has repeatedly noted his hostility to what he has called the “sordid business” of “divvying us up by race.” In 2007, diverging from an important Rehnquist court decision that allowed public universities to consider race in admissions decisions, the Roberts court forbade public school systems to take race explicitly into account to achieve or maintain integration. But those cases involved education, and it has been decades since the court last took an intensive look at the use of race in public hiring or promotion.