Mr. Ricci probably deserved his promotion and had a right to his day in court. But contrary to what many conservatives insist, that does not mean he should win the case. The legal arguments for his position, as for the invalidation of the Voting Rights Act, are not absurd: they include reasonable readings of Supreme Court precedent. They just aren’t originalist arguments.

To conclude that New Haven acted unconstitutionally is to assume that the Constitution’s 14th Amendment mandated a policy of strict colorblindness by state and local governments. Maybe it should have. But the historical evidence that it did is weak. Certainly the conservatives on the Supreme Court have not tried to argue that it did: originalist analysis has been notably absent from their opinions in affirmative-action cases.

Judicial restraint has also been absent. That virtue is best understood as a finger on the scales, tipping judges in close cases against invalidating the actions of Congress or state or local governments. To invalidate laws without a strong argument that the Constitution requires doing so is precisely what conservatives usually mean by “judicial activism.”