The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a group of white firefighters in New Haven, Conn., were unfairly denied promotions because of their race.

The much-anticipated ruling reversed a decision that high court nominee Sonia Sotomayor endorsed as an appeals court judge, potentially providing her critics with fresh ammunition two weeks before her Senate confirmation hearing.

The case began in 2003 when New Haven gave a multi-racial group of firefighters a test to see which would be promoted. No African Americans passed the exam, so the city promoted no one.

A group of white firefighters who passed the test sued, alleging racial discrimination.

In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court said the city had, indeed, discriminated against the white firefighters.

“No individual should face workplace discrimination based on race,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority.

Kennedy said the test was valid and geared to the skills and knowledge needed by firefighters.

“The process was open and fair,” he said. “The problem, of course, is that after the tests were completed, the raw racial results became the predominant rationale for the city’s refusal to certify the results.”

He said the city had no “strong basis” for throwing out the results.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. form the majority.

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