Supreme Court Keeps Firefighters’ Civil Rights Claim Alive

By Michelle Chen May 25, 2010

Once again, a city fire department is in the hot seat for employment discrimination and prompting the Supreme Court to set crucial precedents for civil rights law. This time, thousands of Black firefighters in Chicago got the green light from the Supreme Court to broaden the scope of their civil rights claim despite having passed a deadline to do so. In contrasting the ruling with the Lily Ledbetter gender-discrimination case–in which the court upheld time limits on claims–the New York Times editorial board predicts:

If interpreted properly by the lower courts, the ruling could give a chance at relief to minority groups, women, the elderly the disabled and others claiming to be victims of a discriminatory employment practice long after the practice went into effect.

The case, Lewis v. City of Chicago, centered on a controversial firefighter test that systematically excluded candidates of color over a number of years. The main issue was not the discriminatory "disparate impact," which a lower court already ruled on, but the time limits attached to the case. The high court ruled that test takers could take legal action against the racially biased test even after a technical deadline for bringing claims had passed. The immediate impact of the decision will be local, affecting several thousand firefighter candidates, who may be entitled to remedies including the hiring of about 120 Black candidates and millions in damages. But Lewis adds another crease to the bizarre patchwork of legal and political opinions surrounding the Civil Rights Act in the 21st century.