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Sotomayor hearings: Nominee says panel did the right thing in New Haven case

July 14, 2009 |  7:07 am


Sen. Patrick Leahy swung from the Tarzan murders to the New Haven, Conn., firefighters case, the decision that has drawn so much attention to Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s record as an appellate court judge on the 2nd Circuit. That decision, which allowed the city of New Haven to throw out the results of a promotion test for firefighters because minorities fared poorly on it, was just reversed by the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision.

Leahy laid out the dilemma that faces Sotomayor as a jurist: She could have followed precedent and upheld the lower court’s ruling in Ricci vs. New Haven, or she could have voted to overturn that case, and “some would be attacking you as being an activist. Damned if you and damned if you don’t.”

Sotomayor said she was obligated to follow precedent: “This was not a quota test or an affirmative action case.”

The question before the appellate court panel, she said, was whether the city acted appropriately based on its understanding of what the law required it to do.

Given the precedent, she said, “the panel concluded that the city’s decision in that particular situation was lawful under established law.”

As to the Supreme Court subsequently reversing that decision, said Sotomayor, the high court “applied a new standard. It announced it was applying a standard from a different theory of law and explained how to look at this question in the future.”

Leahy then asked her what she meant when she used the phrase “wise Latina,” providing the most electric moment of the morning (so far).

-- Robin Abcarian

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Photo:  Frank Ricci, left, lead plaintiff in the the New Haven, Conn. firefighter case speaks to the media on June 29 in New Haven. The Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that white firefighters in the city  were unfairly denied promotions because of their race, reversing a decision that high court nominee Sonia Sotomayor endorsed as an appeals court judge. Credit: Jessica Hill / Associated Press