Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Supreme Court issues ruling against Chicago in legal case (no, not THAT one)

The Supreme Court of the United States ruled against Chicago city government in a case that will have national impact with the way local governments conduct themselves.

No, the high court did not rule on the case challenging the ban on firearms ownership within the city limits. Monday’s unanimous ruling relates to the fire department, which was sued by several African-American firefighters who took the written examination to qualify for promotions – only to have the city suddenly try to impose a higher score on the exam to actually qualify.

THAT RESULTED IN most of the firefighters who got promotions during the 1990s being white people.

Those black firefighters had filed their lawsuit in U.S. District Court for Northern Illinois, and along the way it was tossed out by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago on the grounds that the firefighters waited too long before beginning their legal fight. The law says such a lawsuit must be filed within 300 days of the act alleged to be improper.

Attorneys for the city argue that the first legal action was filed 430 days after the test results were announced. In short, the merits of the case were ignored because of a technicality – which is common in court fights.

But in issuing a unanimous ruling on Monday, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the high court that the lawsuit could be heard on its merits. They said that each promotion that relied on the test results extended the time period.

WHICH BASICALLY MEANS that Scalia found a technicality that allows the lawsuit to be resurrected from its death due to legal technicalities.

The end result is not that anybody is going to get promoted now. It merely means that the lawsuit can be brought up again in the courts at the Dirksen Building. Which means it will be years before anyone actually gets anything resembling financial compensation because they were denied a promotion.

It also means many more years of legal bills being incurred as the city has to resume its defense of the fire department’s decade-old conduct.

Now a part of me is discouraged that my home city is going to get hit with legal bills estimated to run into many millions of dollars. I’m sure that some politically-partisan people will find it hilarious that a Democratic-leaning city such as Chicago gets whacked with such high legal bills.

BUT I DO derive some pleasure out of the fact that this court ruling by the Supreme Court helps to ensure that a ruling eventually is made on the merits of the issue – which is just how relevant those written examinations ought to be when it comes to these public safety agency promotions.

Monday’s court ruling wasn’t a surprise, since reports from a few months ago when arguments were heard by the high court indicated that the justices publicly expressed their concerns about the city’s conduct.

What is involved in this case is the examination given to prospective fire department officers. Typically, anyone who scored 64 or better was considered to have “passed” the examination. But after the exam was given, city officials then imposed a higher standard of 89 – saying they were not likely to promote anyone who scored less than that, even though they techically passed the exam with a lower score.

The result of that change was that only 11 percent of firefighters who got promoted as a result of that examination were African-American (in a city where black people account for just over one-third of the total population).

TO MY SENSIBILITIES, this appears to be changing the rules in the middle of the process. So Scalia’s ruling that the lawsuit needs to be resurrected and heard in court would seem to be an obvious one.

But this case will tick off those people who were celebrating last year when the same Supreme Court ruled against New Haven, Conn., for the way in which they used test results to determine firefighter promotions.

In that city’s case, the fire department tried to ignore test results that would have resulted in a disproportionate share of white firefighters qualifying for promotion. The Supreme Court said that act was improper, and the kind of people who want to ignore racial and ethnic factors in hiring wanted to believe that they had achieved a major victory.

No more of this messing around with test results, which should be absolute – they say. If the end result is fewer black public safety officials, perhaps it is just evidence they weren’t qualified for the job.

THAT KIND OF narrow-minded logic is warped in that it ignores the harm that can be caused when a public safety agency doesn’t bear some resemblance to the people whom it is protecting.

Now, we have a case where black firefighters in Chicago are likely to have to receive some financial compensation (even though I’m sure the legal fees being wracked up will wind up consuming most of whatever financial judgment or settlement is ultimately approved to resolve this case).


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