WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court faces a rare confluence of cases over the next two weeks that offers the justices an opportunity to reaffirm or reshape the nation's civil rights laws, including a high-profile challenge brought by white firefighters who claim they lost out on promotions because of the "color of their skin."
The cases also touch on the Voting Rights Act, the need to provide English classes for immigrant children and, more tangentially, discriminatory mortgage lending.
The most emotionally charged case is from the New Haven, Conn., firefighters, whose complaints define the real-life quandary that sometimes accompanies government efforts to ensure racial equality.
The firefighters accuse city officials of violating civil rights laws and the Constitution by throwing out a promotions test on which they performed well but no blacks scored high enough to be eligible. The city responds that relying on test results with such wide racial discrepancies could have violated federal law and left them open to being sued by minorities.
The court will hear the arguments, along with the others, in the midst of an evolving national conversation about the role of race and diversity and in the wake of the nation's historic presidential election.
Edward Blum, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said he thinks the court took the firefighter case "because it wants to make a statement. And of all the cases involving race and ethnicity, I think this is the easiest for the court to answer."
The justices are deeply divided about government policies involving race, even if Chief Justice John Roberts has shown no such ambivalence. His view was evident quickly, when in a first-term dissent he lamented the "sordid business" of dividing individuals by race.
Others on the court seem just as firm, but on both sides of the issue. That often leaves Justice Anthony Kennedy, generally skeptical of race-based policies, as the target for opposing lawyers.
It also means the court's decisions are often nuanced, narrowed by the facts of the case and the intricacies of the law at hand.
The case of the firefighters, who have dubbed themselves the New Haven 20, provides the court a particularly human example of what they say is government intervention that goes so far to protect minorities that it discriminates against whites.
The lead plaintiff, Frank Ricci, is a veteran firefighter who says in sworn statements that he spent thousands of dollars in preparation and is dyslexic. "I relied in good faith on the promise that effort and not race would determine who would be promoted," he said in a sworn statement.
When the results of the 2003 exams came back, only white firefighters and one who is Hispanic scored high enough to be considered for the openings for lieutenants and captains. All 27 black firefighters who took the test were below the cutoff.
After tumultuous public hearings, with minority groups arguing that the tests were flawed and the white firefighters saying that officials were caving to political pressure, the city's Civil Service Board voted not to certify the results. The promotions remain in limbo.
A district judge ruled for the city, as did a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. But the case created a loud disagreement among the judges on the circuit. After the full court voted 7-6 not to rehear the case, dissenting judges called on the Supreme Court to get involved.
The Obama Justice Department mostly sides with New Haven officials. It told the court that employers may decline to certify the results of promotional tests if they believe that doing so will violate Title VII's prohibition against disparate impacts.