Monday, August 11, 2008

Premature appeal in Bridgeport racial discrimination case

Sometimes the most interesting cases don't get resolved in the Court of Appeals. The Court can only take cases if it has jurisdiction over the appeal. Usually, that happens when the case is over and there is no place for the parties to go but the Second Circuit. In a racial discrimination suit against City of Bridgeport, Connecticut, the Court had to sidestep the issues because the appeal was filed too early.

The case is Bridgeport Guardians v. Delmonte, decided on August 11. The City has been under Court order since 1983 in connection with allegations of racial discrimination against its black police officers. Under the Court order, a special master reviews issues arising under that order as a means to help the Federal Judge deal with that particular workload. (The special master is a lawyer appointed by the Court and acts as a kind of surrogate judge).

Once a court order goes into effect like this, issues arise all the time which the special master and then the Federal Judge have to resolve. This time around, the question is whether the Court Order from 1983 allows a secretary in the police department to assert her rights, as opposed to the police officers. Interesting issue: how far does a court order like this go, and who can assert their rights under it?

The Second Circuit cannot resolve that issue, however. It would have authority to hear the appeal if the District Judge modified the 1983 Court order. But that didn't happen here. The City argued that the judge did modify the order by asking the special master to determine whether he has authority under the 1983 Court order to resolve the secretary's claim. Unfortunately for the City, there was no modification here. The special master always had authority to interpret the Court order (and the District Court then reviews the appropriateness of that interpretation). In sum, the Second Circuit holds,

This Court cannot review whether the special master may rule on the civilian complaint at issue in this appeal until the special master has made a determination, and the district court, in turn, has had an opportunity to rule on that determination in an appealable order that is then brought before us.

Too bad for us who like to read interesting Court rulings, in this case whether anyone employed by the police department can get relief under the 1983 Court order. To liven things up, however, Judge Cardamone provides the background to this case and the events that led up to that Court order, which has apparently been a major issue in that City for over two decades:

Bridgeport is Connecticut's largest city, with a population of almost 140,000 people. Its advantageous location on Long Island Sound attracted early settlers and by the mid-nineteenth century the City had grown into a substantial manufacturing center. During the 1900s, like many cities in the Northeast, Bridgeport lost a portion of its manufacturing base, and that left in its wake serious problems of unemployment and crime. One of the hurdles Bridgeport has faced in adapting to its changed circumstances is the fact that its police department has engaged in racial discrimination against the Black and Hispanic officers on its force.

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