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Ben Vargas Testifies at Sonia Sotomayor's Confirmation Hearings

CQ Transcriptions
Thursday, July 16, 2009 5:06 PM

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

We'll now hear from Lieutenant Ben Vargas. Ben -- Benjamin Vargas is a lieutenant in the New Haven Fire Department and was a plaintiff in the case of Ricci vs. DeStefano. He also worked part- time as a consultant for a company that sells equipment to firefighters.

Mr. Vargas?

VARGAS: Thank you. Members of this committee, it is truly an honor to be invited here today.

Notably, since our case was summarily dismissed by both the District Court and the Court of Appeals panel, this is the first time I am being given the opportunity to sit and testify before a body and tell my story. I thank for this -- thank you to this committee for the opportunity.

Senators of both parties have noted the importance of this proceeding, because decisions of the United States Supreme Court Greatly impact the everyday lives of ordinary Americans. I suppose that I and my fellow plaintiffs have shown how true that is. I never envisioned being a plaintiff in a Supreme Court case, much less one that generated so much media and public interest. I am Hispanic and proud of their heritage and background that Judge Sotomayor and I share. And I congratulate Judge Sotomayor on her nomination.

But the focus should not have been on me being Hispanic. The focus should have been on what I did to our new promotion to captain and how my own government and some courts responded to that. In short, they didn't care. I think it important for you to know what I did, that I played by the rules and then endured a long process of asking the courts to enforce those rules.

I am the proud father of three young sons. For them I sought to better my life, and so I spent three months in daily study, preparing for an exam that was unquestionably job-related. My wife, a special education teacher, took time off from work to see me and our children through this process.

I knew we would see little of my sons during these months, when I studied every day at a desk in our basement, so I placed photographs of my boys in front of me. When I would get tired and wanted to stop -- wanted to stop, I would look at the pictures, realize that their own future depended on mine, and I would keep going. At one point I packed up and went to a hotel for a day to avoid any distractions, and those pictures came with me.

I was shocked when I was not rewarded for this hard work and sacrifice, but I actually was penalized for it. I became not Ben Vargas, the fire lieutenant who proved themselves qualified to be captain, but a racist statistic. I had to make decisions whether to join those who wanted promotions to be based on race and ethnicity or join those who would insist on being judged solely on their qualifications and the content of their character.

RICCI: I am proud of the decision I made and proud of the principle that our group vindicated together.

In our profession, we do not have the luxury of being wrong or having long debates. We must be correct the first time and make quick decisions under the pressure of time and rapidly unfolding events. Those who make these decisions must have the knowledge necessary to get it right the first time.

Unlike the judicial system, there are no continuances, motions or appeals. Errors and delays can cost people their lives. In our profession, the racial and ethnic makeup of my crew is the least important thing to us and to the public we serve. I believe the countless Americans who had something to say about our case understand that now.

Firefighters and their leaders stand between their fellow citizens and catastrophe. Americans want those who are the most knowledgeable and qualified to do the task. I am willing to risk and even lay down my life for fellow citizens, but I was not willing to go along with those who place racial identity over these more critical considerations.

I am not a lawyer, but I quickly learned about the law as it applies to this case. Studying it as much I studied for my exam, I thought it clear that we were denied our fundamental civil rights. I expected Lady Justice with the blindfold on, and a reasoned court from a federal court of appeals telling me, my fellow plaintiffs and the public that the court's view on the law -- what the court's view on the law was and do it in an open and transparent way.

Instead, we were devastated to see a one paragraph unpublished order summarily dismissing our case, and indeed even the notion that we had presented important legal issues to that court of appeals. I expected the judges who heard my case along the way to make the right decisions, the ones required by the rule of law.

Of all that has been written about our case, it was Justice Alito who best captured our own feelings. We did not ask for sympathy or empathy. We asked only for even-handed enforcement of the law and prior to the majority justice opinion in our case, we were denied just that.

Thank you.

CARDIN (?): Thank you for your testimony.

RICCI: I am proud of the decision I made and proud of the principle that our group vindicated together.

In our profession, we do not have the luxury of being wrong or having long debates. We must be correct the first time and make quick decisions under the pressure of time and rapidly unfolding events. Those who make these decisions must have the knowledge necessary to get it right the first time.

Unlike the judicial system, there are no continuances, motions or appeals. Errors and delays can cost people their lives. In our profession, the racial and ethnic makeup of my crew is the least important thing to us and to the public we serve. I believe the countless Americans who had something to say about our case understand that now.

Firefighters and their leaders stand between their fellow citizens and catastrophe. Americans want those who are the most knowledgeable and qualified to do the task. I am willing to risk and even lay down my life for fellow citizens, but I was not willing to go along with those who place racial identity over these more critical considerations.

I am not a lawyer, but I quickly learned about the law as it applies to this case. Studying it as much I studied for my exam, I thought it clear that we were denied our fundamental civil rights. I expected Lady Justice with the blindfold on, and a reasoned court from a federal court of appeals telling me, my fellow plaintiffs and the public that the court's view on the law -- what the court's view on the law was and do it in an open and transparent way.

Instead, we were devastated to see a one paragraph unpublished order summarily dismissing our case, and indeed even the notion that we had presented important legal issues to that court of appeals. I expected the judges who heard my case along the way to make the right decisions, the ones required by the rule of law.

Of all that has been written about our case, it was Justice Alito who best captured our own feelings. We did not ask for sympathy or empathy. We asked only for even-handed enforcement of the law and prior to the majority justice opinion in our case, we were denied just that.

Thank you.

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