Liberal organizations and politicians denounced the decision, saying it undercuts civil rights protections, and cautioned against using it as criticism against Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, whose ruling the high court reversed. Conservatives, meanwhile, applauded the decision for re-examining race-based discrimination and said Sotomayor's role in the case should be examined.
"Today's narrow decision is likely to result in cutbacks on important protections for American families," Leahy said in a statement.
The majority opinion held that the city of New Haven's actions violated Title VII, which prohibits intentional acts of employment discrimination based on race, color, religion sex and national origin, as well as policies or practices that are not intended to discriminate but have a disproportionately adverse affect on minorities.
Under Title VII, an employer is allowed to engage in intentional discrimination for the specific purpose of avoiding an unintentional, disparate impact on minorities -- but the employer must have a strong basis in evidence to believe it would be liable for that disparate impact if it did not engage in intentional discrimination. The court ruled today that New Haven's race-based rejection of the white firefighters' promotions cannot satisfy the strong-basis-in-evidence standard.
"It is less likely now that employers will conscientiously try to fulfill their obligations under this time-honored civil rights law," Leahy said. "This is a cramped decision that threatens to erode these protections and to harm the efforts of state and local governments that want to build the most qualified workforces."
Leahy said Sotomayor and the other judges who issued the Second Circuit opinion that was reversed today were sympathetic to the firefighters' claim -- but the Supreme Court had not yet spoken out on the issue. Their decision, he said, was an example of "judicial restraint."
"Judge Sotomayor and the lower court panel did what judges are supposed to do, they followed precedent," Leahy said.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), however, a longtime member and former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the Supreme Court was correct in finding that race-based employment decisions "must be justified by facts, not fear." He said Sotomayor's decision should have reached the same conclusion.
"In the twenty-first century, race discrimination requires more justification than the fear of being sued," Hatch said. "The Second Circuit should have recognized the serious and unique issues this case raised and given it the thorough treatment it deserved."
In an opinion piece published today on the Web site RealClearPolitics, Hatch argues the Senate needs more time to determine "whether Judge Sotomayor endorses the restrained view of judicial power... or the activist view."
"This question is particularly important because President Obama has already taken sides in this debate," he writes. "He has already said that he believes that judges may decide cases based on their personal views, concerns, and what is in their hearts."
House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Lamar Smith (R-Texas) applauded today's decision and said the Senate Judiciary committee should carefully examine Sotomayor's role in the Second Circuit's opinion on this case.
"Discrimination and racial preferences have no place in our courts, let alone on the highest court in the land," he said. "Unlike the Second Circuit's decision where a panel of judges issued a short paragraph affirming the lower court's ruling, the Supreme Court's decision shows a thorough and careful examination of the law."
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee said in a statement that "this case sharpens our focus on Judge Sotomayor's troubling speeches and writings, which indicate... that personal experiences and political views should influence a judge's decision."
"That theory is a breathtaking departure from the proper role of the American judge and will clearly be the subject of questioning at the upcoming hearing," he added.
Leahy said it would be wrong to use today's specific decision to criticize Sotomayor. It is notable, he said, that four justices would have upheld her ruling. Furthermore, he pointed out, her nomination is supported by law enforcement organizations, public officials on both sides of the aisle, and as of today, the American Hunters and Shooters Association -- all of which, he said, have endorsed her "long record of judicial restraint."
Marge Baker, executive vice president for the liberal group People For the American Way, said in a statement that "it is the height of hypocrisy and opportunism for Sotomayor's so-called 'strict constructionist' opponents to attack her over Ricci."
"Sotomayor and her panel colleagues were bound by longstanding precedent and federal law," Baker said. "They applied the law without regard to their personal views and unanimously affirmed the district court ruling. To do anything but would have been judicial activism."
Sotomayor's ruling was backed up by the full Second Circuit, Baker pointed out, while earlier Second Circuit and Sixth Circuit cases produced similar rulings.
"In other words, Sotomayor is anything but an outlier," she said.
Baker also criticized today's ruling, saying it "will upend decades of settled law... and undermine crucial civil rights protections under Title VII."
Similarly, today on CBSNews.com's Washington Unplugged, Matthew Colangelo of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund said his organization is "disappointed that a narrow majority of the Supreme Court has essentially announced a brand new rule – that makes it harder for employers to eradicate discrimination in their workplaces."
Doug Kendall, president of the progressive Constitutional Accountability Center, said the Senate as it examines Sotomayor's record will have to consider the direction of the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts.
"The Supreme Court adjourned today, but it left momentous questions in its wake," he said. "These incremental changes bring the Roberts Court to the precipice of decisions that could rewrite fundamental principles of constitutional law and significantly undercut the ability of Congress to solve the nation's most pressing problems."
Tie Goes to Kennedy In Ricci Case by CBS News Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen