In a decision that may herald a new era in the long struggle over racial integration in public education, the Supreme Court declared Thursday that officials may not use race to assign children to schools, even if the goal is greater diversity.
Neither white nor black students may be turned away from a particular school simply because of their race, the court said in a 5-4 decision.
The decision opens the door to legal challenges to integration strategies that have been adopted in school systems across the country, including Los Angeles Unified School District -- strategies that limit the number of white and minority students who may attend particular schools.
Thursday’s ruling did not directly address any programs other than the Seattle and Louisville, Ky., policies before the court, but the language of the majority opinion suggested others could face close scrutiny.
“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in the majority opinion. Public schools must “stop assigning students on a racial basis,” he said.
Some lawyers following the case said the ruling could spell trouble for racial guidelines in as many as 1,000 school districts across the nation. But each district’s program differs, and it is unclear how sweeping the effect of Thursday’s ruling will be.
The ruling also raised questions about how the high court, with its conservative bloc strengthened by the addition of Roberts as chief justice in 2005, will deal with the legacy of the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision that ignited half a century of struggle over busing and other efforts to promote racial integration in schools.
The decision, coming on the last day of this year’s term, highlighted the fact that a conservative bloc led by Roberts prevailed in nearly all of the major cases that came before the court. On abortion, religion, campaign finance and now school integration, the chief justice has put together a five-member majority to move the law to the right.
Roberts cited the decision in Brown in support of his opinion in the current case. Just as Brown struck down forced segregation nationwide, he said, the court is now declaring that students may not be classified “based on the color of their skin.”
The court’s four liberal justices accused the majority of turning its back on Brown and the promise of racial integration.
“This is a decision that the court and the nation will come to regret,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer said in a long dissent delivered in the courtroom.
“It is not often so few have quickly changed so much,” he said at one point.
In a separate dissent, 87-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens noted how far the court had moved in his long tenure. “It is my firm conviction that no member of the court that I joined in 1975 would have agreed with today’s decision,” he wrote.
The sharpness of the dissent suggested that the liberals’ concern went beyond the immediate decision -- which applied to two relatively atypical situations -- to apprehension about the direction of the court and how it might deal with other issues of race and education.
What Thursday’s decision might imply for the future was complicated by the fact that Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who supplied the decisive fifth vote, wrote a separate opinion asserting that school officials could use means other than racial categories to promote integration.
Kennedy said school officials should not “ignore the problem of de facto resegregation in schooling.” They may adopt “race-conscious measures to address the problem in a general way,” he said.
He endorsed such policies as locating new schools in racially mixed neighborhoods, and shifting attendance boundaries to encourage more diverse classes.
His opinion also appeared to cover free-transfer policies that allow students to move from a more segregated to a more integrated school. The Los Angeles school board adopted such a transfer policy after its mandatory busing program ended in the early 1980s.
In part because of Kennedy’s separate opinion, school officials and civil rights lawyers had mixed reactions to the ruling.
Francisco Negron, general counsel for the National School Boards Assn., said he was disappointed with the decision, but added: “I see hope, because Justice Kennedy left open the possibility of the use of race to achieve classroom diversity.”
But Kennedy “did not give us a lot of guidance on how the plan must be devised,” Negron added.
The winning lawyer for the parents in Seattle emphasized that the ruling protected minority and white students.
“This case was about protecting all children, regardless of skin color, from race discrimination,” said Harry Korrell, the Seattle lawyer for a group known as Parents Involved in Community Schools.
School officials in Los Angeles say that their magnet schools were adopted as part of an integration plan approved by a state court, and that those schools should be shielded from legal challenges on that basis.
But under Thursday’s ruling, the parents of children who are turned away from their preferred schools can sue the school district in federal court, saying the use of the racial guideline violates the Constitution and its guarantee of “equal protection of the law.”
In the Seattle and Louisville cases, the court struck down guidelines that put limits on the percentage of white or black students who could enroll. In Louisville, the guidelines applied to all of the elementary schools and required the percentage of black children to range from 15% to 50%. Such citywide guidelines are rare.
Seattle used a more limited set of guidelines that determined who could transfer to another high school.
The guidelines were challenged by parents whose children were turned away from their first choice because of their race. They lost in the lower courts, but won Thursday.
Kennedy joined with Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. in ruling that officials could not use “crude measures” that “classify every student on the basis of race and ... assign each of them to schools based on that classification.”
How the justices might line up on a different set of facts in future cases is uncertain, but the overall rightward movement of the court seemed clear.
Thursday’s ruling does not appear to undercut affirmative-action policies in colleges and universities. Roberts noted with apparent approval that the high court had said in 2003 that universities had a compelling “interest in diversity in higher education,” and he gave no hint that he favored revisiting that decision.
Some civil rights advocates feared the school integration cases could open the door to a renewed challenge to other race-based policies in education.
Thursday’s split within the high court has been brewing for a year. Last June, shortly after Alito succeeded Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the justices surprised school lawyers by agreeing to hear a challenge to the Seattle and Louisville guidelines. The court had turned away similar appeals from other cities just a few months before.
That suggested a major change was in the works. The justices heard arguments in the two cases in December and have spent the months since then going back and forth with majority and dissenting opinions.
Roberts insisted that the legacy of the Brown decision called for a ban on the use of race in school assignments.
“Before Brown, schoolchildren were told where they could and could not go to school based on the color of their skin,” he wrote. “The school districts in these cases have not carried the heavy burden of demonstrating that we should allow this once again -- even for very different reasons.”
Kennedy agreed with Roberts, but only part of the way. He said the chief justice’s opinion was “too dismissive of the legitimate interest government has in ensuring all people have equal opportunity regardless of their race.” He nonetheless voted to strike down the integration guidelines in Seattle and Louisville because they classified students based on race.
Breyer delivered a 68-page dissent that accused Roberts and the majority of reaching out to strike down policies that were bringing about greater equality.
Calling the Brown decision “this court’s finest hour,” he said: “The last half-century has witnessed great strides toward racial equality, but we have not yet realized the promise of Brown.”
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In 5-4 rulings Thursday, the Supreme Court:
* Said the nation’s public schools could not consider race when assigning children to campuses in order to promote integration.
* Ruled that a Texas inmate could not be executed, because lower courts had failed to consider whether he was able to comprehend why he was to be killed. Nation, A16
* Voted to give manufacturers more leeway to set minimum retail prices without violating antitrust laws. Nation, A20
Source: Los Angeles Times