Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Supremes and Civil Rights

The Washington Post has an interesting article this morning on upcoming civil rights cases bound for the Supreme Court docket. The case most closely described in this article is one involving the New Haven, CT fire department. From the article, here's the crux of the case:

"When the results of the 2003 exams came back, only white firefighters, including one who is Hispanic, scored high enough to be considered for the openings for lieutenants and captains. All 27 black firefighters who took the test were below the cutoff. After tumultuous public hearings, with minority groups arguing that the tests were flawed and the white firefighters saying officials were caving to political pressure, the city's Civil Service Board voted not to certify the results. The promotions remain in limbo."

When I first read this, my blood pressure raised a I read it again. And it raised a little bit more. I immediately decided that this MUST be one of those ridiculous cases in which because the outcome moved in a certain direction, the test must OBVIOUSLY be flawed.

Then I continued to read the article, and a seed of doubt was planted in my mind:

"The city argues that the test it commissioned, in which 60 percent of the score came from a multiple-choice questionnaire and 40 percent from an interview, must have been biased, despite its best intentions. It is not specific about the problems with the test, though it says the exam did not measure "command presence" and should have given more weight to the interview."

Hmmm....we have a problem, Houston. Nearly half the test was based on interviews (subjective analysis)? Wow. What an opportunity for mischief. Who were the interviewers? Was the "old (white) boy" network in action, giving buddies of long-term standing a push because of years on the softball field? I'm far less apt to accept the argument that a test is biased if it is multiple choice (objective analysis), than I am if this huge element of subjectivity is injected. But the answer here is not so cut and dried as I felt upon first reading.

The bottom line here is that things HAVE changed in our country, and civil rights cases are going to continue to be tougher and tougher, and they will be derived from narrower and narrower instances of grievance. For the Supreme Court NOT to recognize this would be a gross miscarriage of justice.

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