Sunday, December 03, 2006

Supreme court to confront school racial diversity

Supreme court to confront school racial diversity
By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court confronts whether race can be used in deciding where students to go to school on Monday, testing the willingness of President George W. Bush's two newest court appointees to overturn programs to foster racial diversity.

In a pair of cases that could affect millions of students nationwide, the high court will consider whether the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equality allows public elementary, middle and high schools to use race as a factor in admissions.

A sharply divided Supreme Court voted 5-4 in 2003 when it last addressed similar issues and ruled that racial preferences can be used in university admission decisions.

Oral arguments on Monday should offer insights into the views on this hot-button social issue from the court's newest members, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, conservatives who joined the nine-member court last term.

Alito replaced the more moderate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, author of the 2003 ruling that left unresolved whether race also can be used as a factor in deciding admissions to elementary and high schools.

As U.S. Justice Department lawyers in the early 1980s during Ronald Reagan's presidency, both Roberts and Alito strongly opposed quotas and some affirmative action programs designed to benefit minorities.

In one case before the high court, Seattle used race as a tie-breaking factor in deciding who gets into which of the city's public high schools when too many students seek admission to the same school.

School officials there aim for each school to have about 40 percent white students and 60 percent racial minorities, reflecting the city's overall racial composition.

In the other case, the Louisville, Kentucky-area school district used racial guidelines to keep black student enrollment at most elementary, middle and high schools at between 15 percent and 50 percent to maintain diversity.

A group of parents in Seattle and the parent of a white student in Louisville who had been denied entry into his neighborhood school challenged the use of race.

Their lawyers said the Supreme Court has yet to decide a case involving a school district's voluntary use of race-based pupil assignments for a purpose other than to remedy the effects of past segregation.

Both supporters and opponents of the programs cited the Supreme Court's historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 that outlawed racial segregation in the nation's public schools.


Theodore Shaw of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., a civil rights group in New York, urged the court to "preserve and pursue the soul of desegregated education enshrined in Brown and its progeny."

"The Orwellian arguments that voluntary integration efforts constitute racial discrimination in violation of the ... (Constitution), if validated by this court, would be an unwarranted and tragic reversal of historic proportions," he said in written arguments.

The Bush administration's top courtroom lawyer, Solicitor General Paul Clement, also invoked the 1954 ruling in urging the court to strike down both programs.

Clement argued the two race-based student assignment plans are just as unconstitutional as the school segregation policy struck down in 1954.

"The promise of this court's landmark decision in Brown and its progeny was to effectuate a transition to a racially nondiscriminatory school system and thus achieve a system of determining admission to the public schools on a nonracial basis," he said.

Clement and lawyers for the parents will argue against the plans. Attorneys for the two school districts will defend the programs as constitutional.