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Supreme Court Rules in Major Civil Rights Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has decided a civil rights case that could have a far-reaching impact on race-based affirmative action programs around the country. By a vote of five to four, the high court sided with white firefighters in Connecticut who had said they were the victims of reverse discrimination.

A divided Supreme Court ruled Monday that the city of New Haven, Connecticut, unfairly denied promotions to a group of mostly white firefighters.

The firefighters had sued the city after it scrapped the results of a promotion exam after it became clear that no African-Americans and only a few Hispanics were likely to win promotions.

Several white firefighters did well in the exam and appeared headed for promotions, but New Haven officials feared the city could become the target of lawsuits by minority firefighters who took the exam.

The majority opinion in the five-to-four Supreme Court decision was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is often the key swing vote on a court sharply divided between conservative and liberal-leaning factions. It came on the final day of the court's annual term.

Kennedy wrote that New Haven's decision to throw out the results of the promotion exam violated federal civil-rights law because the white firefighters were penalized because of the lack of successful black applicants.

The high-court ruling overturned a previous decision by a federal appeals court panel that included Judge Sonia Sotomayor. President Barack Obama has nominated Sotomayor to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter.

Conservative groups and critics of affirmative action hiring programs welcomed the Supreme Court decision.

Michael Rosman is with the Center for Individual Rights in Washington.

"I think it is justice. What the city did was intentional discrimination," said Rosman. "The [promotions] list that was promulgated in 2004 is going to be used and those firefighters who were at the top of the list are going to be promoted."

Supporters of affirmative action programs say the Supreme Court decision will complicate the efforts of local and state governments to ensure that minority applicants are treated fairly in the hiring process.

"The problem that we see in this kind of a decision is that it requires state and local governments to say to women or minorities, if you are upset, you have to sue us because we cannot make any changes unilaterally," said Richard Primus, a legal scholar at the University of Michigan.

Many Republicans praised the Supreme Court ruling and said the high court's reversal of Judge Sotomayor in the lower court raises questions about her judicial philosophy.

Sotomayor is sure to be asked about the case when her Senate confirmation hearings begin July 13.

But Senator Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, believes the Supreme Court ruling in the New Haven case will not have a negative impact on her nomination.

"The bottom line is that the excellence, wisdom and moderation Judge Sotomayor has displayed in her decisions on the 2nd Circuit [court of appeals] will follow her as she serves on the Supreme Court bench. I believe she will be a positive addition to the United States Supreme Court," said Schumer.

If confirmed, Sotomayor will become the first Hispanic justice and only the second woman on the current court, joining Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Sotomayor is not expected to affect the ideological balance on the high court since the man she is replacing, Justice David Souter, generally voted with the court's liberal faction.