HARTFORD -- The state's highest court ruled yesterday that New Haven's fire department used an illegal system to promote firefighters in the mid-to-late-1990s, but the court did not reverse those promotions.
A lawyer for six minority firefighters who protested the promotion system said the decision did not go far enough, but he considered the ruling a victory because it struck down a practice that minorities said limited their chance to advance.
''Those promotions are forever tainted with illegality," said lawyer Martyn Philpot, Jr. ''This should send a strong message to those in authority and management within the fire department that they must from this point forward, regardless of consequences, follow the letter of the law."
The promoted firefighters did not play any role in the department's decision to use the illegal practice, the ruling said. If the promotions were voided, the last six years of their careers would be invalidated ''on the basis of a budgetary practice in which those individuals had not participated," Justice David Borden wrote in a unanimous opinion.
The case dealt with a practice known as underfilling, in which the department used money earmarked for other positions to promote firefighters.
Between 1996 and 1997, Chief Martin J. O'Connor promoted 40 firefighters to lieutenant using that system.
Some of the new lieutenants became eligible to sit for a captains' exam in April 1998 and went on to be promoted again.
The plaintiffs said the process favored white firefighters and violated their rights under equal protection laws. Adding more people into the process diluted minorities' chances of being promoted to captain later, they argued.
The court said the practice violated city regulations. ''We are mindful that the fire department was faced with a difficult task in appointing enough firefighters properly to oversee the city," Borden wrote. But he said the court could not validate illegal appointments.