By Aaron M. Rodriguez
Ben Vargas is a Lieutenant firefighter at the New Haven Fire Department. In November and December of 2003, Ben Vargas and 117 other New Haven firefighters took promotional exams in a competitive effort to advance their careers. When the city of New Haven discovered that no black firefighter had scored high enough on their exams to qualify for an immediate promotion, the New Haven Civil Service Commission failed to legitimize the exam fearing a disparate impact lawsuit. As a result, Ben Vargas joined the ranks of those who were denied their promotions and filed a lawsuit against the city of New Haven. Nearly six years later, Vargas is still looking forward to his deserved promotion; and after his win at the Supreme Court, he hopes that their landmark victory will positively affect employer hiring practices across the nation.
We know you've been busy the past few weeks, so we appreciate your availability for this interview. We would like you to share some thoughts with us about your Senate appearance.
Hispanic Conservative: Why did you agree to speak at the Senate Hearing against Sonia Sotomayor? What did you hope to accomplish?
Ben Vargas: Having been denied our day in court by the district court and then by the 2nd circuit court of appeals, the senate hearings offered us an opportunity to tell our side of the story. We were virtually silent for more than five years. We had a substantial amount of support from all kinds of people all over the country, and we owed it to them to speak the truth.
Hispanic Conservative: You’ve been called a Hispanic Uncle Tom for your position in the Ricci v. DeStefano lawsuit; and in other places, others accuse of you hating your own skin color. How would you respond to these accusations?
Ben Vargas: In short, the Federal Supreme Court just finished telling the nation that I was right. All nine justices agreed that our case was worthy of review. Even the city’s lawyers admitted there was not a single case in the country where a city just threw out an entire civil service exam and promoted no one because of the racial results. There was not single case cited to support their decision. This is clearly a black eye to the 2nd circuit court, which should have picked up on the District court's error, but did not. Instead, the 2nd circuit court claimed “precedent,” but it has been made very clear in the hearings that there was in fact no precedent.
This was a clear-cut case of discrimination, plain and simple. Had the results been the other way, where Blacks had passed overwhelmingly over whites and Hispanics, the exams would have been certified. I stood up for what was right at a time when I had no idea if I would be promoted. Anyone willing to allow an employer to change the rules mid-way through the process and remain quiet despite such an abuse of power should read more of Martin Luther King Jr. who once said, “The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.” I stood up for what was right, and I have no regrets.
Hispanic Conservative: If confirmed, Sonia Sotomayor will be the first Latina to serve on the Supreme Court. Do you believe that it’s important to have diversity on the Supreme Court?
Ben Vargas: “In my mind, impartiality is the very essence of judging and of being a judge. A judge does not look to his or her sex or racial, social, or religious background when deciding a case. It is exactly these factors that a judge must push to one side in order to render a fair, reasoned judgment on the meaning of the law. " -- Justice Clarence Thomas
The quote from Justice Thomas plays to the point I want to make here. How far are we willing to go just for the sake of diversity? I have already been on the wrong side of one judge's empathy, and I do not wish that on anyone. I personally would much rather have a judge that is fair, impartial and follows the law, than one which allows feelings to guide his or her decisions.
Hispanic Conservative: You and Sonia Sotomayor share a Puerto Rican heritage. However, it would appear that you have different views about entitlements. Why did you join the others in this lawsuit against New Haven?
Ben Vargas: When the Civil Service Board refused to certify the exams, I honestly thought that all but the “victicrats” would join the lawsuit. I was surprised that so few joined. In my mind this was such a clear case of discrimination, a violation of civil rights that I honestly did not see how we could lose. So, although the racial quotas did become an issue once the attorneys got involved, to me it was simply a case of racial discrimination that I just could not allow. I looked down the line to what the future of the department would be if we allowed this to happen without a fight, and I chose to fight it
Hispanic Conservative: Concerning the Ricci v. DeStefano lawsuit, the International Association of Hispanic Firefighters decided to file an Amicus brief opposing you and your white colleagues. They stated that Sotomayor’s decision should not be reversed because it would worsen racial tensions in public safety departments and because a decision to avoid discrimination cannot itself be discrimination. What is your opinion about this organization, and how would you answer them?
Ben Vargas: The City of New Haven had a similar argument and look how they turned out. New Haven used the excuse that if they certified the exams, Black firefighters would sue. So out of fear of a lawsuit, they received a lawsuit from us. The International's argument is just as ridiculous as the one New Haven proposed. You don’t base your decisions on fear of what someone else might do or what you fear might happen, you base them on the facts and the law. When you’re grounded in truth, there is no shaking your foundation. Part of what made our resolve so strong was that we had 20 guys who believed strongly we were not given equal protection of the law under the 14thamendment. The facts were on our side. Regardless of how the courts chose to see it, that fact was undeniable. Thankfully we still have some Justices that interpret the law as it was intended. And I’m sure most Americans would agree with me and the Justices on that.
Hispanic Conservative: Fellow Firefighter, Gary Tinney, played a role in opposing the city’s certification of your promotional exams. When the New Haven 20 filed a lawsuit against the city, Tinney called the lawsuit “an attempt to discriminatorily and exclusively represent the interest of its majority Caucasian firefighters.” Do you believe that race played a role in your lawsuit?
Ben Vargas: Tinney and his small block of supporters have played the race card since day one. His sister is a member of the civil service board. There is no doubt in my mind that she was aware of the fact he had failed the Captain's exam before the Race labeled list came out. Uncharacteristically, Tinney came out aggressively against the certification of the exams from the start, and he used lots of lies to try and derail certification. This is all well documented in the record, and Justice Alito mentions it in his concurring opinion. So race did play a substantial role in this lawsuit; had Tinney and his group not played that card, we might have had those results certified and the lawsuit would never have been filed.
Hispanic Conservative: Now that the Supreme Court has overturned New Haven’s ruling, you will get your long overdue promotion. Undoubtedly, some of those who were promoted by a different standard will lose their promotions. How do you think this will play out at the firehouse?
Ben Vargas: This is another little known fact: there have been no promotions since prior to the lawsuit. Tinney has played a role in denying Whites, Hispanics and Blacks their hard earned promotions for almost 6 years, and in the meantime, he has been sitting in a Captain's spot collecting Captain's pay all along. To be fair, Whites and Hispanics have been sitting in Captain's spots as well collecting Captain's pay, but they had no role in pressuring the civil service board to not certify the exam results.
Hispanic Conservative: Mr. Vargas, thank you for your time, and we wish you the best. Keep in touch.