A recent Supreme Court decision has important implications for civic management. In the case regarding the promotion of fire fighters in New Haven CT (Ricci v. DeStefano) the city’s council refused to promote fire fighters to management positions after testing results revealed that certain minority groups tested poorly and were not eligible for advancement.
This case is strongly associated with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII in particular), which has always been a contentious issue. Much of what I am discussing here is the court’s opinion, not necessarily my own, so please don’t bash this post if you don’t agree with the Supreme Court’s ruling. This post is only concerned with the beneficial aspects of the Supreme Court clarifying an incredibly complex issue, one that will allow it to come to decisions quicker and with more authority.
In the case of the New Haven firefighters, the Supreme Court found in favor of the firefighters, ruling that the city had imposed disparate-treatment based on prohibited actions. Basically, even though the city extensively studied the test and the test-takers it could find no reason to throw out the results. Because it still threw out the results, its decision was based solely on racial considerations.
This case is important because no good option existed for the city. Any decision they made would have been greeted with anger, lawsuits, and unhappiness. It is not unlike most decisions facing civic governance throughout the US. Cities must make decisions to operate, and this court ruling helps cities decide how to decide.
Based on the arguments made in court by the city, it became clear that the city’s main motivation was to avoid liability under Title VII. There was no other basis for their decision. The court found this argument unacceptable. Decisions must be based on evidence, not fear of litigation.
Complicated issues must be decided by cities all the time. If no actions are taken, then the city becomes paralyzed. This has occurred in many cities already. The city officials and employees are so afraid of running afoul of legislation that they cease making decisions at all. This ruling has clarified the issue at hand – how to come to a decision when either path presents a prima facie liability. It is an easy solution: gather evidence and base the decison on that evidence.
Cities still have to make hard decisions. They still have to deal with the consequences of their decisions. But they can no longer hide behind their fear of litigation, because that in itself is a horrible option.