NEW HAVEN, Conn. - Amid blaring bagpipes, the crowd erupted yesterday with even louder cheers, whistles and shouts when firefighters entered a high school auditorium to receive their promotional badges after a five-year legal battle that ended with a U.S. Supreme Court victory.
The high court ruled in June that New Haven officials violated white firefighters' civil rights when they threw out 2003 test results in which too few minorities did well.
Fourteen firefighters who sued were promoted to lieutenant and captain. An additional 10 firefighters, including four minorities, who took the 2003 tests but were not plaintiffs in the court case also were promoted along with an inspector.
"I'm just thrilled it happened," said newly promoted Capt. Gary Carbone, one of the plaintiffs. "It felt like time stood still. I was so excited to get the badge."
The crowd of several hundred gave the firefighters standing ovations as they were sworn in.
"Today we acknowledge . . . the training, experience, character, and sacrifice of these 25 officers who take on new leadership roles in this great department," said New Haven Mayor John DeStefano. "It's a challenge that we all acknowledge - that I acknowledge - has been earned by them."
The case became an issue in confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who ruled against the white firefighters when she served on a federal appeals court.
Another plaintiff, Steven Durand, who was accepting his promotion to lieutenant, predicted the case would result in "sweeping changes" around the country in how promotions are handled.
"Today is a great day. It takes a lot of stress off our shoulders," said Durand.
Ben Vargas, the only Hispanic among the plaintiffs who was promoted to captain, called the ceremony "vindication" for a hard-fought battle.
Vargas said that firefighters did not allow the dispute to affect their performance.
"When that bell rings, all that stuff goes out the window," he said.