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Thirty years ago, New Haven, Conn., civil rights lawyer John R. Williams thrust himself into the public eye representing Black Panther Party defendants. His latest cause, however, is that of a white male lawyer who claims state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal passed him over for a promotion due to an affirmative action program. The attorney general’s position is that plaintiff Harold H. Burbank II was not hired as an assistant attorney general — after years as a paralegal for the office — because other candidates were more qualified. “They claim,” Williams argued in his brief opposing Blumenthal’s summary judgment motion “that because they, too, are white males over the age of forty (or at least many of them are), by definition they are incapable of discriminating against a white male over the age of forty.” That argument, Williams contended, was a pretext, disguising underlying racial discrimination. Rendering a decision last month, U.S. District Judge Christopher F. Droney in Connecticut analyzed Burbank’s six-count complaint, which alleged violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and general civil rights statutes. Ultimately, Droney dismissed the suit because Burbank could not show that the attorney general used quotas or had designed the program to prevent non-minorities from being promoted. In 1987, at age 30, Burbank actually was hired as an assistant attorney general, but was terminated at the end of a year for failing to pass the bar exam, a basic requirement for the position. He still hadn’t passed it by 1992, when he was hired by the attorney general’s office as a paralegal. Burbank finally passed the bar two years later, after six attempts, but was not hired as an assistant attorney general due to mixed reviews from supervisors, the state argued. The record shows that 64 of the 86 attorneys positions filled between 1994 and 2001 went to white candidates. During that time, 93 of the 127 lawyers in the attorney general’s office were white. In his bid to get the case to a jury, Williams was unable to prove the attorney general’s stated reasons for not promoting Burbank were a mere pretext to hide racial discrimination. Williams did not return a call for comment, but Williams & Pattis partner, Norman Pattis, defended the decision to bring the suit. “Burbank’s an unconventional claim,” Pattis said. “But I think it’s informed by a solid interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause.” Last spring, Pattis, in the federal court trial of Peterson v. Hartford, convinced a New Haven jury that white Hartford firemen were denied promotions due to racial bias. The plaintiffs made a case that their race was numerically coded into the promotion-exam process, and prevented fair advancement. In fiery closing arguments to the jury, Pattis astounded the black Hartford fire officials, who were defendants in the case. He quoted heavily from Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I have a dream” speech. The jury returned an award of $3.2 million for the white firemen.

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