New Haven firefighter Frank Ricci has been the invisible man of Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings. For four straight days, members of Congress have endlessly rehashed, dissected and debated the case that bears his name. Republicans have lionized Ricci and used his lawsuit against New Haven, Connecticut to bash Sotomayor for everything from shoddy analysis and perfunctory opinion-writing to reverse racism.
So it was with great anticipation that the man himself arrived in the witness chair today. But in case it wasn’t obvious from his uniform, Ricci is a firefighter, not a legal expert. So in his testimony, Ricci largely stuck to what he knew. He opened with a lecture on how “technology and modern threats have changed our profession.” He detailed the dangers of his job and why lieutenants and captains need to understand the “dynamic fire environment.” His point, eventually, was that the test he took was designed to promote only those who’d mastered all this tricky stuff. By refusing to promote on the basis of the test results, the city of New Haven risked putting incompetents behind the hose.
“When your house is on fire or your life is in jeopardy, there are no do-overs,” he said with the delivery of someone who has given this speech before, possibly to third-graders on career day. (The soliloquy prompted Sen. Lindsey Graham to tell him later, “Mr. Ricci, I would want you to come to my house if it was on fire.”)
Republicans on the committee have frequently alluded to the "hardship" Ricci suffered as a result of Sotomayor's decision that denied him a promotion. He filled in the gory details today. The most egregious injury? All that time wasted studying. Ricci explained how he’d used flash cards, and highlighters no less, and had spent hours boning up for the test, only to have his fine work tossed out by New Haven and his promotion denied.
Knowing Ricci’s history as a serial litigator made it a little hard to swallow his assertion of major hardship. His colleague, Lt. Ben Vargas, was far more compelling. A Latino father of three, he also studied hard for the test, passed, and wasn’t promoted. He argued that he didn’t want the city to give him any special treatment. “I do not want my sons to think their father became a Captain because he was Hispanic and used his ethnicity to get ahead. Worse still is to jump the line ahead of others who are more qualified. There is no honor in that.” He pointed out that there were other minorities who also weren’t promoted because of New Haven’s—and Sotomayor’s—decision.
Only a real ideologue could fail to be moved. At the same time, the Republicans’ relentless focus on the case was simply overkill. As discrimination cases go, Ricci really pales by comparison to the ones advanced over the years by women and minorities. As such, Republicans’ embrace of Ricci and the firefighters had a Johnny-come-lately feel to it. They had a legitimate issue in the Ricci case—at least with civil rights law, if not with Sotomayor, but they had little moral authority with which to press it. The “short white men” in the GOP, as Graham called them today, have never devoted even a tenth of this much time or attention and yes, empathy, to the far more common acts of discrimination—also frequently upheld by the courts—against people who aren't disgruntled white men. They tried to mitigate that fact by bringing in Vargas. But given the Republican track record, it's pretty certain that if Vargas had been one of a group of mostly minorities who’d been denied a promotion by a test created by an all-white fire department, he wouldn’t be sitting in the Hart office building today.
Now that the hearings are just about done, Ricci and Vargas can go back to fighting fires in New Haven. And out of the cameras’ glare, elected officials there will have to go back to the drawing board to figure out another way to ensure that their fire department promotes a few people who resemble the community they serve. It’s a horrible, nettlesome problem, as Frank Ricci has illustrated so well. But as Republicans have been pointing out all week, it’s exactly the kind of bigger social question that isn’t going to be resolved by the Supreme Court, regardless of whether or not Sotomayor lands a seat there.
MoJo D.C. bureau Legal Affairs reporter Stephanie Mencimer is reporting live from inside the Sotomayor confirmation hearings this week. Check out her previous wrap-ups: Pride and Prejudice, Where Did Sotomayor's Empathy Go?, and Sotomayor Slips Up. For the latest analysis, watch our video and live blog here, or follow Stephanie's and David Corn's coverage on Twitter.