Friday, June 29, 2007

Supreme Court rules on race-conscious school placements

The US Supreme Court [JURIST news archive] handed down decisions in the last three cases of its 2006 Term Thursday, including the consolidated cases of Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education [Duke Law case backgrounder; JURIST report] and Parents Involved v. Seattle School District [Duke Law case backgrounder], where the Court struck down public school consideration of race when assigning students to public schools.

In the Seattle case, parents sought an injunction against the school district's policy of assigning students to schools based partly on race, so that the racial makeup of each school roughly mirrors that of the district, arguing that the consideration of race violated the equal protection guarantee of the 14th Amendment [text]. The district court upheld the policy. A panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, applying the strict scrutiny standard of the 2003 University of Michigan affirmative action cases [JURIST online symposium] and finding that the policy was not narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling state interest. Following an en banc review, however, the full Ninth Circuit reversed the panel [opinion, PDF] and sided with the school district.

Likewise, in the [Kentucky] case, the district court refused to issue an injunction against the school district and upheld the policy under strict scrutiny. The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court reversed both decisions Thursday, holding that the policies did not survive the applicable "searching standard of review," which required the school districts to "demonstrate that the use of individual racial classifications in the assignment plans here under review is 'narrowly tailored' to achieve a 'compelling' government interest."

Read the Court's opinion per Justice Chief Justice Roberts, along with a concurrence from Justice Thomas, a second concurrence from Justice Kennedy, a dissent from Justice Stevens, and a second dissent from Justice Breyer.

This from Jurist.
5-4 ruling limits use of race by district

A divided U.S. Supreme Court struck down Jefferson County Public Schools' desegregation policy yesterday -- saying the district's use of race in assigning students was unconstitutional.

The landmark decision placed new limits on the ability of districts nationwide to pursue racial diversity.

In a 5-4 decision, Chief Justice John Roberts said that by classifying students by race, the Louisville and Seattle school districts perpetuated unequal treatment and had failed to justify the use of race.

"The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race," Roberts said.

The decision reversed the lower courts and was a victory for Crystal Meredith, who challenged the Jefferson County plan when her son was denied a transfer to Bloom Elementary School because he is white.

But the split decision left the door open for schools to consider race in narrower circumstances, with five justices saying that school diversity is a compelling state interest.

Although the ruling will restrict hundreds of districts' ability to integrate schools, it wasn't as sweeping as some civil-rights advocates had feared: It did not overturn past decisions on race in higher education or delve into affirmative action.

This from the Courier-Journal.
Also from C-J, Jefferson County Board of Education preliminary Press Conference; and Press Conference on School Desegregation ruling.
SCOTUS strikes down Jefferson County Schools' Integration Plan by 5-4 vote

Here is the opinion of the US Supreme Court (a/k/a SCOTUS) in the Seattle and Jefferson County School desegregation cases released June 28, 2007. For any SCOTUS afficianados, there were 75 slip opinions for the Oct 2006 term which can be found here. The local case was styled Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education but was consolidated with the Seattle schools case.

Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School Dist. No. 1
From is the following short summary of this decision at Court strikes down school integration plans, ends Term:

[T]he Supreme Court divided 5-4 on Thursday in striking down voluntary integration plans in the public schools of Seattle and Louisville. Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., wrote the majority opinion in the combined cases. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy did not join all of the majority opinion, but joined in the result. Kennedy suggested in a separate opinion that the Chief Justice's opinion, in part, "is at least open to the interpretation that the Constitution requires school districts to ignore the problem of de facto resegregation in schooling. I cannot endorse that conclusion."

"The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race," Roberts wrote. On the two school plans, the majority found that the districts have "failed to provide the necessary support for the proposition that there is no other way than individual racial classifications to avoid racial isolation in their school districts."

The Chief Justice, in his oral announcement of the ruling, insisted that the Court was remaining faithful to Brown v. Board of Education in barring public school districts from assigning students on the basis of race. Answering that, Justice John Paul Stevens said in dissent that there was a "cruel irony" in making that claim, because it involved a rewriting of the history "of one of this Court's most important decisions." Stevens noted that he joined the Court in 1975, and asserted that "no member of the Court" at that time "would have agreed with today's decision."

This from the Kentucky Law Review blog.
Schools to re-examine racial integration

What to do now? School officials around the country are asking that question following a Supreme Court decision rejecting racial integration plans in Seattle and Louisville, Ky.

The 5-4 ruling prohibited those district plans but didn't entirely shut the door on using race as a factor when making decisions about what schools should look like.

The ruling brought complaints that it allegedly betrayed the Supreme Court's most acclaimed ruling - the 53-year-old Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregated schools.

Justice Anthony Kennedy went along with the court's four most conservative members in rejecting the Louisville and Seattle plans. However, he stopped short of saying race can never be a component of school efforts to achieve diversity.

This from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Justices Limit the Use of Race in School Plans for Integration

With competing blocs of justices claiming the mantle of Brown v. Board of Education, a bitterly divided Supreme Court declared Thursday that public school systems cannot seek to achieve or maintain integration through measures that take explicit account of a student’s race.

...Chief Justice Roberts’s control was not quite complete, however. While Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined his opinion on the schools case in full, the fifth member of the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, did not. Justice Kennedy agreed that the two programs were unconstitutional. But he was highly critical of what he described as the chief justice’s “all-too-unyielding insistence that race cannot be a factor in instances when, in my view, it may be taken into account.”

This from the New York Times.
And also from the Times...this editorial:

Resegregation Now

The Supreme Court ruled 53 years ago in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated education is inherently unequal, and it ordered the nation’s schools to integrate. Yesterday, the court switched sides and told two cities that they cannot take modest steps to bring public school students of different races together. It was a sad day for the court and for the ideal of racial equality.

Since 1954, the Supreme Court has been the nation’s driving force for integration. Its orders required segregated buses and public buildings, parks and playgrounds to open up to all Americans. It wasn’t always easy: governors, senators and angry mobs talked of massive resistance. But the court never wavered, and in many of the most important cases it spoke unanimously.

Yesterday, the court’s radical new majority turned its back on that proud tradition in a 5-4 ruling, written by Chief Justice John Roberts. It has been some time since the court, which has grown more conservative by the year, did much to compel local governments to promote racial integration. But now it is moving in reverse, broadly ordering the public schools to become more segregated.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who provided the majority’s fifth vote, reined in the ruling somewhat by signing only part of the majority opinion and writing separately to underscore that some limited programs that take race into account are still acceptable. But it is unclear how much room his analysis will leave, in practice, for school districts to promote integration. His unwillingness to uphold Seattle’s and Louisville’s relatively modest plans is certainly a discouraging sign.

In an eloquent dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer explained just how sharp a break the decision is with history. The Supreme Court has often ordered schools to use race-conscious remedies, and it has unanimously held that deciding to make assignments based on race “to prepare students to live in a pluralistic society” is “within the broad discretionary powers of school authorities...”

Across U.S., a New Look at School Integration Efforts

...Louisville, whose plan was struck down by yesterday’s ruling, could move in that direction.
“We didn’t have a, quote, Plan B, ready in case we lost,” said Stephen Imhoff, one of seven members of the Jefferson County school board that oversees the Louisville schools at issue in ruling. “But I began bringing up socioeconomic diversity with the board five years ago, and I think it will be one of the viable options we will discuss. Our board believes that diversity is valuable, and we will work to maintain it.”

Sharon Browne, a lawyer for the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative group that supported the parents suing Seattle and Louisville, said at a news conference yesterday that in addition to the foundation’s current litigation against policies in Los Angeles and Berkeley, Calif., schools, her group has identified several other districts, including Lynn, Mass., and Rochester, whose policies now seem ripe for challenge.

There are no reliable statistics on how many districts try to achieve racial balance by using race in decisions about which students go to which schools; estimates range from a few hundred to nearly 1,000. Some states specifically call for such plans....

This from the New York Times.

Parsing the High Court's Ruling on Race and Schools

What does this decision mean for other public school plans that consider race as a factor?
The decision narrows the arsenal of tools available to public school districts seeking to achieve or maintain racial diversity. However, because of Kennedy's concurring opinion, the decision does leave the door open for race to be used as a factor in limited circumstances.

Recent high court rulings have addressed diversity plans in higher education. Thursday's decision applies specifically to K-12 public education. However, even the majority justices disagreed on whether and how race may be considered as a factor in public school admissions. So, it isn't clear how this ruling will affect programs and circumstances in which a student's race is considered — such as admissions to competitive magnet programs. That uncertainty leaves school districts some room to maneuver.

What is clear is that school districts cannot classify students by race for the purpose of school assignments, as the Seattle and Louisville school plans did. Using race for other educational purposes, such as to track enrollment, is still permissible, based on Kennedy's concurring opinion.

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