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Sotomayor hearings: Frank Ricci, plaintiff in Conn. discrimination case, finally speaks

July 16, 2009 |  1:27 pm

Tott-ricci_kmwa2znc Frank Ricci, the witness we’ve all been waiting for at Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings, finally took the floor and told his story to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

There were no stunning revelations. But Ricci, addressing the appellate court denial of his civil rights case, laid down one line straight from the Republican playbook:

“Americans have the right to go into our federal courts and have their cases judged on the Constitution and/or federal laws,” he said, “and not on politics or personal feelings.”

Ricci has been the most vocal of the 19 New Haven, Conn., firefighters who sued under federal civil rights laws after the results of a promotion test were thrown out. The city did so because it feared it would face a lawsuit from black and Latino firefighters claiming the tests had a discriminatory effect on minorities. The white plaintiffs lost at the trial court and before Sotomayor’s appeals court panel, but eventually prevailed in the Supreme Court.

Several of the firefighters, dressed in uniform, sat behind Ricci during the hearing. Another plaintiff, Lt. Ben Vargas, also testified.

Vargas began by congratulating the judge on her nomination and said, “I am Hispanic and proud of the heritage and background that Judge Sotomayor and I share.”

Then he told his story, recounting the hardship the case has caused him and his three sons.

Like Ricci, Vargas also pushed a point that Sotomayor’s Republican critics have stressed: that a judge’s decision should be based on the law, not empathy. (Sotomayor has countered that that’s what she did: base her decision on law, not personal beliefs or preferences.)

Vargas referred to a part of the Supreme Court’s Ricci vs. DeStefano decision, in which Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote that plaintiffs should not expect “sympathy” from judges, only fairness.

“We did not ask for sympathy, or empathy,” Vargas said. “We asked only for evenhanded enforcement of the law and . . . we were denied just that.”

-- Kate Linthicum

Photo: Firefighters Frank Ricci, left, and Ben Vargas. Credit: Brendan Smialowski / Bloomberg

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