Frank Ricci always wanted to be a fireman. The bit about being a Supreme Court plaintiff came later.
Ricci is a 34-year-old firefighter with the New Haven Fire Department. He is a truckie, as the fire service saying goes; he staffs New Haven's Truck 4. That means: throwing ladders, busting windows, forcing entry, cutting holes. Rescuing people. Ricci is also the lead plaintiff in what could be, let's just call it as such, the highest-profile racial discrimination case of the Court's 2008-2009 Term.
The case denoted Ricci v. DeStefano, to be argued later this spring, challenges New Haven's decision not to promote any firefighters to lieutenant because no African-American or Hispanic firefighter scored high enough on the promotion test. New Haven officials said they feared a discrimination lawsuit if they only promoted white firefighters. Skeptics say the city was really fearful of political retaliation.
There will be endless ink sprayed on this legal conflagration; Ricci and his allies already have a web site posting documents, fund-raising appeals and more. But for now, let's just find out a bit more about Frank Ricci himself.
"When we were kids," Ricci said in a telephone interview Tuesday, "we could either be a fireman, or a fireman, or a fireman."
Ricci lived for a time on Long Island. His uncle was a firefighter. So were both of his brothers. When it came time for college, Ricci moved to suburban D.C. to study fire science at Maryland's Montgomery College. He was a volunteer with the Rockville fire department and worked with the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad before going to Connecticut and joining, in time, New Haven's department.
On Tuesday, after dropping off one of his two kids at school, Ricci explained that he is currently assigned to the city's fire training academy. He will be returning Friday to the Truck 4 crew, based along with Engine 6 at a station at the corner of Goffe Street and Webster Street. This is, say, about eight blocks from the Yale Law School environs. His is the busiest truck in town, running about 1,800 calls a year. No EMS, either; his truck crew need not worry about pesky sick-people calls.
"I love going to work," Ricci said. "It's the greatest job in the world."
Legal arguments will be first and foremost in this case, of course. But, as with cases involving the military, the life-saving/life-risking nature of the fire service itself will help judicial perceptions. A certain deference to uniformed expertise can occur. And here's one thing to keep in mind, Ricci said: in the fire service, lieutenants and captains are on the front lines. They lead the crew that goes inside the burning building. Sheer competence matters; Ricci helped make a movie, Smoke Showing, that gives a little taste of the action. He studied hard for the lieutenant's test, which included both written and oral components. The top 10 exam scorers, in the competition for eight positions were all white. The top African-American candidate scored 14th, and the top Hispanic candidate scored 27th. The city decided not to promote anyone.
"I was the first one to stand up and say this is wrong," Ricci said.
Ricci and the other firefighters have been represented by New Haven attorney Karen Lee Torre, a graduate of Southern Connecticut State University and the University of Bridgeport's law school. She has previously won settlements for New Haven police officers in a reverse discrimination lawsuit, among other victories. Now, she and her firefighter clients face some pressing tactical and strategic questions; including, presumably, whether some reinforcements will be brought in to help before the high court.