Key U.S. justice opposes use of race in school cases
WASHINGTON – A justice who may cast the decisive vote on the closely divided U.S. Supreme Court on Monday sharply criticized using race to decide where students go to school.
“You’re characterizing each student by reason of the color of his or her skin,” Justice Anthony Kennedy told a lawyer for one of two school districts arguing before the high court.
“It seems to me that that should only be, if ever allowed, allowed as a last resort.”
The Supreme Court justices considered the two cases that could affect millions of students nationwide by deciding whether the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equality allows public elementary and secondary schools to use race as a factor in admissions.
Kennedy, widely believed to have the controlling vote on the nine-member court closely divided between liberals and conservatives, said the justices never have upheld such race-based plans voluntarily adopted to attain racial diversity.
“That takes us on a very perilous course,” he said in calling it “a troubling case.”
Kennedy, a moderate conservative, expressed concern that a school board “may want to use race for political advantage.”
The cases will add to a long line of rulings by the Supreme Court dating back to its historic Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 that outlawed racial segregation in the nation’s public schools.
As the justices spent two hours confronting the important legal issues, hundreds of civil rights supporters marched outside the building in cold weather, carrying signs saying “Save Brown v. Board of Education” and chanting “We won’t go to the back of the bus.”
The court seemed split along predictable lines.
Conservatives, such as Justice Antonin Scalia, and Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, the court’s two newest members appointed by President George W. Bush, asked questions that appeared critical of the plans.
WHAT IS THE LOGICAL END POINT?
“What is the logical end point in this plan?” Roberts asked one of the school board’s lawyers. He expressed concern that students “are being denied admission to the school of their choice.”
The court’s only black member, conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, followed his usual practice and did not ask any questions. But Thomas in the past has strongly opposed any government preferences for racial minorities.
The liberals, Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, all appeared sympathetic to using race to keep schools integrated.
Sharply questioning the Bush administration lawyer who opposed the race-based plans, Breyer seemed concerned that schools once again will become segregated.
“It seems to me from what I read that there is a terrible problem in the country. The problem is that there are lots and lots of school districts that are becoming more and more segregated,” Breyer said.