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Really Big (as in 185 Pages Big) Supreme Court Decision Issued Today

Today, the Supreme Court issued its long-awaited decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District, which ruled that use of race by public school systems as one factor in assigning students to school is unconstitutional. At the Wall Street Journal Blog, Peter Lattman provides this  simple summary of the 185-page decision:

Bloggers have already started examining the decision from a variety of perspectives.  The WSJ Blog summary opines that the case does not overturn Brown v. Board of Education (which abolished the "separate but equal" justification for school segregation), but rather, amplifies it to stand for the proposition that schools cannot look at race at all, no matter the reason for doing so.  As Roberts stated in the majority, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."

In this post at Prawfs Law Blawg, Paul Horowitz considers what today's ruling means for Grutter v. Bollinger, where the court upheld the University of Michigan Law School's admission program that allowed for consideration of race and other nonmerit-based qualifications. Horowitz draws several distinctions betweeen today's rulings, which related to lower school education, and Grutter, which involved higher education. He writes:

The majority notes that Grutter rested on "the interest in diversity in higher education."  But the Court stresses that the kind of diversity at issue in Grutter was not simply "race alone," but included a variety of factors beyond race.  Moreover, the admissions program approved in Grutter involved a set of holistic and individualized determinations about admissibility, and not just a crudely operated search for racial balance.  The Court thus distinguishes Grutter from the present cases, certainly without overruling and also, I think, without quietly eviscerating it.  I think it is this last conclusion that will occasion the most controversy, and others may point to other aspects of the ruling that they do think damage Grutter.  (More on this later, after the jump.) The majority, in the course of disagreeing with those lower courts that applied Grutter to various K-12 school assignment plans, also emphasizes that Grutter "relied upon considerations unique to institutions of higher education, noting that in light of the expansive freedoms of speech and thought associated with the university environment, universities occupy a special niche in our constitutional tradition."  Thus, to the majority, Grutter takes place within the "unique context of higher education," and within the tradition of academic freedom found in many First Amendment rulings over the past 50 years -- a First Amendment tradition that substantially underwrote the Court's decision in Grutter, and that is not relevant with respect to K-12 schools.

Tom Goldstein of SCOTUS Blog also opines that Grutter survives -- and indeed, even thrives -- in the aftermath of today's decision. Goldstein believes that because Justice Kennedy's concurrence does not adopt the majority view that education systems must be color-blind, his decision controls the law going forward. And from Kennedy's concurrence, Goldstein gleans the following points:  (1) There is a compelling governmental interest in school diversity; (2) the Constitution does not require color-blindness; (3) racial classifications are subject to strict scrutinty; but (4) that certain uses of race are sufficiently innocuous that they do not trigger strict scrutiny. Goldstein also notes that Kennedy's opinion leaves one issue open:

Here is what is not perfectly clear, and regrettably so. Justice Kennedy leaves open the substantial prospect that schools can use the Grutter model of employing race as one of many factors, even absent a showing that other efforts that do not involve the express use of race have failed. But he does not clearly decide the issue, which is the major open jurisprudential question.

The commentary keeps coming in, but for now, enough with the experts. I'll close this post with the view of Fran Ellers, a parent of two children in the Jefferson County Public School System (the other respondent in the case along with the Seattle school system). In this guest blog post, Ellers writes:

I’m so disappointed – for my two kids, for our school system, and for students and families across the U.S. My son has six or seven running buddies at his elementary school, only one of whom is from our same neighborhood. The rest are from throughout the county and include children of other races and socioeconomic backgrounds. If we return to a system of neighborhood schools, that learning experience will be lost. My middle-school daughter’s reaction: “You mean we don’t have to have integrated schools anymore? That sucks!”

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on June 28, 2007 at 06:47 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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