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Transcript

Frank Ricci Testifies at Sonia Sotomayor's Confirmation Hearings

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Thursday, July 16, 2009; 4:26 PM

ACTING CHAIR: We'll now hear from Frank Ricci, a name that's been mentioned second only to Sotomayor during this hearing. Frank Ricci has over a decade of experience as a firefighter with the New Haven Fire Department, and was the plaintiff in the case of Ricci v. Destefano. He's a contributing author of two books on firefighting.

It's a pleasure to have you before the committee.

RICCI: Thank you, Senator.

Thank you for the opportunity to appear before this distinguished committee. I accepted, with honor, the invitation to tell my story. Many others have a similar story, and I feel I'm speaking for them, as well.

The New Haven firefighters were not alone in their struggle. Firefighters across the country have had to resort to the federal courts to vindicate their civil rights.

Technology and modern threats have challenged our profession. We have become more effective and efficient, but not safer. The structures we respond to today are more dangerous, constructed with lightweight components that are prone to early collapse, and we face fires that can double in size every 30 to 60 seconds.

Too many think that firefighters just fight fires. Officers are also responsible for mitigating vehicle accidents, hazardous material incidents, and handling complicated rescues.

RICCI: Rescue works can be very technical. All of these things require a great deal of knowledge and skill. Lieutenants and captains must understand the dynamic fire environment and the critical boundaries we operate in. They are forced to make stressful decisions based on imperfect information and coordinate tactics that support our operational objectives.

Almost all our tasks are time-sensitive. When your house is on fire or your life is in jeopardy, there are no time for do-overs.

The lieutenant's test that I took was without a doubt a job- related exam that was based on skills, knowledge and abilities needed to ensure public and the firefighters' safety.

We all had an equal opportunity to succeed as individuals, and we were all provided a road map to prepare for the exam.

Achievement is neither limited nor determined by one's race but by one's skills, dedication, commitment and character. Ours is not a job that can be handed out without regard to merit and qualifications.

For this reason, I and many others prepared for these positions throughout our careers. I studied harder than I ever had before, reading, making flash cards, highlighting, reading again, all while listening to prepared tapes.

I went before numerous panels to prepare for the oral assessment. I was a virtual absentee father and husband for months because of it.

In 2004 the City (ph) of New Haven felt not enough minorities would be promoted and that the political price for complying with Title VII (ph), the city civil service rules, and the charter, would be too high.

Therefore they chose not to fill the vacancies. Such action deprived all of us the process set forth by the rule of law. Firefighters who earned promotions were denied them.

Despite the important civil rights and constitutional claims we raised, the Court of Appeals panel disposed of our case in an unsigned, unpublished summary order that consisted of a single paragraph that made mention of my dyslexia and thus led many to think that this was a case about me and a disability.

This case had nothing to do with that. It had everything to do with ensuring our command officers were competent to answer the call and our right to advance in our profession based on merit, regardless of race.

Americans have the right to go into our federal courts and have their cases judged based on the Constitution and our laws, not on politics or personal feelings.

The lower court's belief that citizens should be reduced to racial statistics is flawed. It only divides people who don't wish to be divided along racial lines. The very reason we have civil service rules is to root out politics, discrimination and nepotism.

Our case demonstrates that these ills will exist if the rules of merit and the law are not followed.

Our courts are the last resorts for Americans whose rights are violated. Making decisions on who should have command positions solely based on statistics and politics, where the outcome of the decision could result in injury or death, is contrary to sound public policy.

RICCI: The more attention our case got, the more some people tried to distort it. It bothered us greatly that some perceived this case as involving a testing process that resulted in minorities being completely excluded from promotions.

That was entirely false, as minority firefighters were victimized by the city's decision as well. As a result of our case, they should now enjoy the career advancement that they've earned and deserve.

Enduring over five years of court proceedings took its toll on us and our families. That case was longer -- was no longer just about as, but about so many Americans who have lost faith in the court system.

When we finally won our case and saw the messages we received from every corner of the country, we understood that we did something important together. We sought basic fairness and evenhanded enforcement of the laws, something all Americans believe in.

Again, thank you for the honor and privilege of speaking to you today.

ACTING CHAIRMAN: Mr. Ricci, thank you very much for your testimony.


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