Poll: Voters Disagree With Sotomayor on Affirmative Action

Wednesday, 03 Jun 2009 12:23 PM

By David A. Patten

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Voters disagree with Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor's controversial ruling in the New Haven firefighters' reverse-discrimination case by more than three-to-one, a new poll shows.

Voters also strongly oppose using affirmative action programs to increase diversity, according to the Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday morning.

"If you look at the data," Quinnipiac Assistant Director Peter Brown tells Newsmax, "what's most interesting is how large their objection is for diversity being a reason for affirmative action. The numbers are staggeringly negative."

In an unusual survey of 3,100 voters -- most national polls rely on about 1,200 respondents – voters by 71 to 19 percent think Sotomayor was wrong to permit New Haven to throw out the results of a promotional exam for firefighters, simply because no African-Americans scored well enough to qualify for promotion.

Asked if Sotomayor's ruling, which has been appealed to the Supreme Court and may be overturned, would make them less likely to support Sotomayor's confirmation, 28 percent said they would be less likely to support her. Fifty-nine percent said her ruling would make no difference in terms of their support.

The results indicate Sotomayor and President Obama could be seriously out of step with voters on the importance of hiring decisions blind to a person's race or personal background, especially in the midst of a serious economic downturn when workers are competing for jobs.

By a 59 to 27 percent margin, even Democrats thought New Haven was wrong to disregard the results of the exam.

"It is obviously an area that those trying to block her confirmation may be able to exploit politically," says Brown. "There is clearly strong opposition from white voters about these programs."

Other findings of the survey:

  • By 70 to 25 percent, voters oppose giving racial groups an advantage in getting government jobs in order to increase diversity. That is particularly significant, Brown says, because the justification for affirmative action programs has shifted from compensating for past racial discrimination toward promoting socially beneficial diversity.

  • Eighty percent say the election of America's first African-American president has not changed their views on racial preferences.

  • Voters in every racial and religious demographic, by 74 to 21 percent, oppose using racial preferences to promote diversity in private sector jobs.

  • Americans support affirmative action programs for the disabled, by a 55 to 39 percent margin.

  • African-American voters support affirmative action, 49 to 45, while Hispanics oppose it by 58 to 38 percent.

  • By a 59 to 30 percent margin, African-American voters support affirmative action for Hispanics. But Hispanics are split, by 47 to 48 percent.

    “What is significant is that the public clearly opposes the idea that such programs are justified as a way of increasing diversity," Brown says, "which has become the rationale in recent years as opposed to compensating for past discrimination which was the reason when they first began."

    The poll has a margin of error of just 1.8 percentage points.

    The New Haven case, Ricci v. DeStefano, stems from a promotion exam taken by 118 Connecticut firefighters in 2003.

    The exam consisted of 200 multiple-choice questions on firefighting techniques, which accounted for 60 percent of the score, and an oral exam that presented various situations. The oral exam comprised the remaining 40 percent of the score.

    Fifty-six firefighters passed the exam, but only the top 19 were eligible for promotion. Based on the exam, no African-Americans qualified for promotion to lieutenant, although two Hispanics would be eligible for promotion to captain.

    The city, afraid it would face a Civil Rights lawsuit, tossed out the exam because it had a "disparate impact" against minorities in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

    Twenty white plaintiffs, including one man identified as both white and Hispanic, filled the lawsuit on the basis of discrimination and the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

    Sotomayor and two others members of the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the city's action, with a summary order that did not even address the constitutional issues raised by the plaintiffs. Their ruling probably would have gone unchallenged but for an unusual dissenting opinion issued by another 2nd Circuit Judge, Jose A. Cabranes.

    Cabranes criticized his colleagues for overlooking "important questions of first impression in our circuit," which led to the Supreme Court taking up the case for further review. Many legal scholars believe the Supreme Court will reverse the decision or send it back to the 2nd Circuit Court for further deliberation.

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