Chicago firefighters exam

In 1995, Chicago paid $5 million for an African-American consultant to work with a blue-ribbon panel to devise a race-neutral exam for promoting firefighters. Unfortunately, in the end result, whites were twice as likely to score “well-qualified” as blacks. In 2002, when it ran out of candidates who scored 89, Chicago stopped requiring that promoted firefighters score that high, and a federal district court has decided as a result that the test was racially discriminatory for the previous seven years. Chicago taxpayers may be on the hook for as much as an additional $80 million in back pay and front pay. (Glenn Jeffers, “Judge rules city fire exam biased”, Chicago Tribune, Mar. 23; AP/Chicago Sun-Times, Mar. 23; Fran Spielman, “Exam bias ruling may cost city $80 million in firefighter lawsuit”, Chicago Sun-Times, Mar. 24).

A question for readers: none of the press has mentioned it, but, in 2001, a labor arbitrator ruled that the city discriminates against whites when it promotes a lower-scoring minority over a white. (Fran Spielman, “City ordered to promote white firefighters”, Chicago Sun-Times, Apr. 14, 2001). In 2002, a federal jury found that the 1986 test was fair, and that the city discriminated by promoting lower-scoring minorities over whites, awarding millions. (AP, May 18, 2002). These would appear to put the city in an impossible position. Or has something happened in the interim that obviates these earlier rulings? As an experiment, I’ve opened comments; please restrict your remarks to this latter question, and please remain civil and respectful.

Update: the 2002 decision’s reverse-discrimination finding was affirmed in Biondo v. Chicago (7th Cir. Aug. 27, 2004), though the damages award was vacated. (Schrank blog discussion).

The decisions are arguably reconcilable: the two exams are different; Biondo involved an explicit quota. On the other hand, page 5 of the Biondo slip opinion explicitly endorsed the methodology used by Chicago that the district court condemned this week.


  • Is testing the correct way to determine who should be promoted to leadership positions? This practice is quite rare in the corporate world.

  • The legal system is working exactly as intended.

    How is that? Well, it is (as it currently stands) intended to remove vast amounts of money from anyone with deep pockets. “Justice” and “predictability” are quite out-dated concepts.

    The crime in question that required litigation was the crime of having money while being something other than a lawyer.

  • Yes, something has happened – the PC insanity has reached even greater heights among jurists.

    This can’t go on. SOMEthing is going to snap, and my personal opinion is that it’s going to be messy. IMHO, the backlash is just beginning…

  • Does this mean that I have a better chance of becoming a fire fighter rather than passing the bar??

  • Keith,

    Interestingly, the idea of testing for promotions is a century-old civil service reform meant to take patronage out of the process. While it certainly has done that, I don’t have any knowledge about how efficacious it has been otherwise. In this case, the parties certainly disagreed whether the test was a useful means of screening, and whether “89” was a meaningful cut-off compared to some other number.

  • I believe that most of us visiting this site are aware that municipalities are in a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. PC foolishness aside, how does one resolve the difficulty of two courts ruling in opposite directions on DIFFERENT cases, resulting in a paucity of valid, legal options? I believe we need to make a few, possibly minor, possibly major changes to the legal system. One thought would be a trigger, such as the current case, where rulings on seperate occasions hold an organization to opposing practical sides of an issue while dodging any requirement for legal review.
    Once the trigger fires, the case is automatically sent somewhere for review and clarification, possibly setting aside one verdict or the other, preferably quickly. This would be for non-constitutional issues…maybe federal circuit? I don’t know, I’m not a lawyer, just interested.