ATLANTA — Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings were met Tuesday with mixed feelings from firefighters as lawmakers questioned her opinion in the New Haven, Conn., reverse discrimination case.
The Supreme Court recently overturned Sotomayor’s decision in the New Haven case, saying a group of white firefighters was wronged when the city threw out the results of a promotion exam because too few minorities did well. The case became a flashpoint for the issue of quotas and affirmative action and critics called Sotomayor’s judgment into question.
In Atlanta, some firefighters declined comment on the case. Some said they weren’t paying attention to the happenings on Capitol Hill, while others said they weren’t convinced the case even involved racism.
“I couldn’t say it was fair or not,” firefighter Malik Mtima said of Sotomayor’s decision. Although, he added: “It’s not likely that black firefighters just weren’t smart enough.”
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Mtima, a four-year veteran of the Atlanta Fire Department, said he’d heard a bit about the case but didn’t know about Sotomayor’s connection to it before Tuesday. He said Sotomayor should have to explain herself because balanced judgment and fairness to minorities are important qualities for a Supreme Court justice.
“There’s not really anything I could do about it, but I would want to know more about her record,” he said.
Patrick Driscoll, president of the Lawrence, Mass., Firefighters Union, Local 146, said he disagreed with Sotomayor’s decision in the New Haven case.
“I don’t know if it will affect her (confirmation), but I think that black, white or indifferent that everybody should be held to the same standard and accountability. There shouldn’t be any extra concessions made because of somebody’s origins or skin color,” he said.
“If she’s trying to turn things around because of race or origin, I don’t know if that kind of person being appointed is the right way to go.”
In St. Francis, Wis., Capt. Larry Passafaro said he was not following the Sotomayor hearings closely because he figured the Democratic Congress will “rubber-stamp” the nomination.
“If it was a closer divided Congress, yes, I’d watch it a little more,” said Passafaro, a 25-year veteran in the fire department in suburban Milwaukee.
He also expressed frustration with the idea that a firefighter applicant would try to use race to earn a job.
“Everybody on this department came in by credentials,” Passafaro said. “... There’s a lot of sacrifice that goes on. People don’t want to see someone handed a job just because they come in screaming and hollering that they want it.”
A group of firefighters in Phoenix said they hadn’t been following Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings closely, but several were in disagreement with her ruling in the New Haven case. Firefighter John Webb said it was a bad decision by the city to throw out the exam results because of race.
“There’s guys that study for that test for over a year. They sacrificed time away from their family. Just to take it away because of a race issue,” Webb said.
He said for him personally, Sotomayor was too liberal.
“But I’m a firefighter,” he added. “I’m not going to judge an educated lady like that.”
Christopher McInnis, a Phoenix firefighter, said race should not play a role in promotions, especially when it comes to firefighting.
“This isn’t just any job,” McInnis said. “It’s not like any job where you can pick and choose anyone you want. When you’re going into a burning building, you want qualified people there.”
Associated Press writers Denise Lavoie in Boston, Dinesh Ramde in St. Francis, Wis., and Terry Tang in Phoenix contributed to this report.