CHICAGO - The Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of 6,000 Black applicants for firefighting jobs here, adding they could proceed with a lawsuit that accuses the city of using a racially discriminatory hiring exam to deny them jobs.
The firefighter exam administered in 1995 had a cut-off score at 64 points and those below it had failed. However the city then told applicants who scored between 64 and 89 points that they too did not qualify.
At the time 26,000 applicants applied for the job and in order to weed out the relatively small number of open positions the city removed anyone who scored under 89 on the written test. Those who scored above 64 but below 89 were told they had passed but would probably not be hired because so many had scored higher than 89. Yet most of the high-scoring applicants were white and only 11 percent were black, thus resulting in the lawsuit alleging discrimination.
The unanimous decision by the high court rejected Chicago's argument that the suit should be dismissed because the case was filed passed the 300-day deadline.
Justice Antonin Scalia said the question was not whether the lawsuit had been filed in a timely manner, but whether the practice at issue can be challenged. He said it could, adding the city's cut-off score for the jobs in question had an adverse impact on qualified black candidates. He sent it back to the lower court in Chicago.
A federal appeals court in Chicago had previously dismissed the case.
Civil rights groups and affirmative action supporters hailed the ruling as a victory for workers rights noting the decision takes into consideration the reality of institutional discrimination policies that limit the balance of equal opportunities for minority applicants.
"Today, the Supreme Court affirmed that job-seekers should not be denied justice based on a technicality," said John Payton, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., in a statement. Payton, who argued the case notes, "This victory goes well beyond the immediate results in Chicago. It should ensure that no other fire department or employer uses a discriminatory test, and LDF will go the extra mile to make sure that they do not."
Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said the city has been trying to diversify the fire department but like most cities has been met with legal challenges from both sides. Since 2006 the city has used a "pass-fail" approach, he said.
Yet critics argue more needs to be done to ensure city posts equally represent the population such agencies serve.
The 5,000-member fire department is about 19 percent black and about 10 percent Latino. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, blacks accounted for 37 percent of Chicago's population.
Mara Georges, the city's corporation counsel said the city would hire the would-be firefighters if told to do so by the appeals court.
The city estimates damages and pension obligations in the suit could be as high as $45 million. However earlier this year, a lawyer for the Black applicants estimated the total damages in the case could reach $100 million.
Nationwide, about 20 million employees work for city and state governments and in many of these agencies, tests are used to hire and promote employees. Such exams have led to years of litigation on whether they are fair or discriminatory.
In a landmark case last year, the Supreme Court said in a 5-4 decision that New Haven, Conn., violated white firefighters' civil rights, throwing out an exam in which no African Americans scored high enough to be promoted to lieutenant or captain.
Critics of the New Haven ruling say it goes against the historic fact that Blacks, Latinos and other minorities entering the workforce face racial disparities and equal opportunities including fair wages, access to promotions or gender-based inequalities.
In 2001 a group of white firefighters in Chicago lost a Supreme Court appeal that challenged an affirmative action plan to promote minorities in the fire department. In the 1970s, the federal government sued the city, alleging the department discriminated against Latinos and Blacks.
Meanwhile when Chicago fire department engineer Gregory Boggs heard the news about the recent ruling he said it brought a smile to his face. Boggs is also the president of the African American Firefighter's & Paramedic's League of Chicago.
"I was very excited," he told the Chicago Tribune. "It's been a hard fight. Fifteen years is a long time."
Photo: Anthony Sturdivant, 47, of Chicago, is a plaintiff in the lawsuit over the discriminatory hiring exam from 1995. (E. Jason Wambsgans/AP/Chicago Tribune)