Firefighters’ case among last facing justices

Final 3 decisions to come tomorrow

By Mark Sherman
Associated Press / June 28, 2009
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WASHINGTON - A closely watched discrimination lawsuit by white firefighters who say they have unfairly been denied promotions is one of three remaining Supreme Court cases awaiting resolution tomorrow.

The court intends to finish its work for the summer that day, Chief Justice John G. Roberts said. The court also will say goodbye to Justice David Souter, who has announced he will retire “when the court rises for the summer recess.’’

Sonia Sotomayor, nominated to take Souter’s place, was one of three appeals court judges who ruled that officials in New Haven acted properly in throwing out firefighters’ promotions exams because of racially skewed results.

The city says it decided not to use the test scores to determine promotions because it might have been vulnerable to assertions the exam had a “disparate impact’’ on minorities in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The white firefighters said the decision violated the same law’s prohibition on intentional discrimination.

The opinion that Sotomayor endorsed has been criticized as a cursory look at a tough issue. Among the critics are fellow judges on the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York. Her defenders have said the short opinion properly applied earlier cases from that appeals court.

The outcome of the case could alter how employers in public and private sectors make job-related decisions.

The other two unsettled cases involve campaign finance law and states’ ability to investigate alleged discrimination in lending by national banks.

The court is considering whether a movie that was critical of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton during her presidential campaign should be regulated as a campaign ad.

The scathing 90-minute documentary about the former New York senator was made by a conservative group.

The group wanted to air television ads in important Democratic primary states and makes the movie available to cable subscribers on demand, without complying with federal campaign finance law.

The Federal Election Commission and a lower court in Washington have said the not-for-profit group, Citizens United, must abide by campaign finance restrictions.

The high court’s conservative justices appeared especially skeptical of that view when the case was argued in March.

In the dispute over investigating national banks, the Obama administration says federal law prohibits states from looking at the lending practices of those banks, even under state antidiscrimination laws.

Federal courts have blocked an investigation begun by New York, which is backed by the other 49 states, of whether minorities were being charged higher interest rates on home mortgage loans by national banks with branches in New York.

President Obama’s proposed overhaul of financial regulation could make the outcome of the case less important. The proposal would create a consumer protection office and states would be empowered to enforce their own laws, with some degree of coordination with the new federal agency.

In addition to the three pending decisions, the court also is expected to say whether it will hear several important cases in its term that begins in October.

Among those cases are:

  • A plea by victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to reinstate a lawsuit against Saudi Arabia and several Saudi princes over charitable donations that allegedly were funneled to Al Qaeda.

  • A request by Chinese Muslims who continue to be held at Guantanamo Bay that the court put teeth into last year’s ruling granting detainees some rights by allowing a judge to order their release into the United States. The 13 Uighurs who remain at the US naval base in Cuba may be sent to the tiny Pacific nation of Palau, a move that probably would end their court case.

  • A bid by convicted police killer Troy Davis of Georgia to get a new court hearing so that he can present evidence suggesting his innocence. Seven of nine key witnesses against Davis have recanted their earlier testimony, but state and federal courts have refused to order a new hearing.

  • Once their work is done, four justices are heading to Europe for teaching gigs. Roberts will be in Galway, Ireland. Justice Samuel A. Alito will travel to Innsbruck, Austria.

    Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is heading to Rome. Justice Anthony Kennedy will spend July in Salzburg, Austria, for the 20th straight year.

    In keeping with his practice of shunning the spotlight, Souter is expected to return to his home in New Hampshire with little fanfare.