Sotomayor Helped Push Minority Cases

Jess Bravin, Wall Street Journal, July 2, 2009

Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor helped lead an advocacy group that pushed legal theories about employment and race much like the one scotched by the Supreme Court Monday, according to documents released Wednesday as part of her confirmation process.

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The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund filed several lawsuits on behalf of minority employees alleging that promotional examinations were racially biased, obtaining judgments or settlements that guaranteed their promotion, sometimes ahead of white employees with higher scores.

In one case against the New York City Police Department, “we obtained quota promotions for Latinos and African Americans to the rank of sergeant,” the group said in a May 1992 report.

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Judge Sotomayor’s backers say her circuit-court vote backing New Haven was based on precedent. The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund documents suggest the judge may long have held similar views. They virtually ensure that a debate over the relationship between the law and racial discrimination will be at the forefront of Judge Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings, which start July 13.

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Judge Sotomayor joined the group’s board in 1980 and at times served as its vice president and as chairman of its litigation and education committees, according to materials she filed with the Senate Judiciary Committee. She stepped down in October 1992, after President George H.W. Bush appointed her to the federal bench. It is unclear from the documents what role Judge Sotomayor played in specific cases.

During her 12 years on its board of directors, the group fought to establish case law that would have allowed New Haven to throw out test results and at least one case seemed to foreshadow that specific dispute.

In a class-action complaint, the group alleged that New York City’s police sergeant’s exam was “discriminatory and not job related,” according to the group’s 1987 report. To settle the litigation, the city agreed to provide “positions of sergeant consistent with the percentage of Hispanic test-takers. As a result almost 100 Hispanics were promoted, over twice the number that would have been promoted without the settlement,” the group reported, adding that they received “backpay and retroactive seniority.”

To reach that number, the settlement involved promoting minority officers ahead of whites who had higher scores. A group of white officers filed suit to block the deal. A federal district judge rejected their claim. “The basic dissatisfaction with the settlement comes from those who object to race-conscious remedies, but in the circumstances of this case, the law provides for just such remediation,” Judge Robert Lee Carter wrote in 1986.

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The Puerto Rican group brought a similar complaint against the New York City Sanitation Department, alleging that its “Supervisor Examination has a severe disparate impact upon Hispanic test-takers,” the 1987 report says, because their pass rate was 37% compared with a white pass rate of 83%. It noted that at the time only 27 of about 1,163 supervisors were Hispanic.

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