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High Court Rules on Race in Schools


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. With Steve Inskeep, I'm Renee Montagne.

The Supreme Court wrapped up its term today with a major ruling on school desegregation. By a 5 to 4 vote, the court said two school districts - Seattle and Louisville, Kentucky - were too extreme in their use of race in assigning children to schools.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg joins us now. And Nina, there were two cases, as I've just said, being considered here. Give us a little background.

NINA TOTENBERG: Well, in Louisville, they combined a broad use of choice of schools. You can go anywhere in the district, plus in neighborhood schools, plus racial assignment in cases where a school will be basically more than 85 percent of one race. They want to prevent it from going to that tipping point.

And most - like 90 percent of the kids get their first choice in schools, but certainly there are some who do not get their first choice because of race. And the plaintiff in this case was a mother who failed to get her kid into her first choice of school. She appealed. She later got the kid in the next year, but for that one year, he was not in her first choice of school.

Seattle has a plan that is somewhat similar, where everybody lists their first choice of school, and the vast majority get their first choice or - and if not their second choice. But because race is a factor in both plans, the Supreme Court today struck down the plans as an unconstitutional violation of the mandate that everybody is treated equally under the law, and that race cannot be used as a determinative factor.

MONTAGNE: And what precisely did the court say then in its ruling, that...

TOTENBERG: Well, it's very - I've just literally gotten out of the courtroom, Renee. This was an hour-long announcement - very passionate. There is no majority opinion for the court on most of the key questionsk, because Justice Kennedy, who is the swing justice, said he still thinks that race can be a factor, but in both these cases, the cities did not show that they had a compelling need to use race, that other things were not perhaps better.

And I still haven't read the entire Kennedy opinion, or, in fact, the hundreds of pages in the dissenting and majority opinions, but the four justices who formed the plurality, Chief Justice Roberts joined by Justice Alito - they are both, of course, Bush appointees - plus Justices Scalia and Thomas basically said race can never be a factor.

Kennedy disagrees with that, but wants a bigger justification, and whether that's even possible is something that the dissent questions. And there was a 21-minute announcement from the bench of it - very passionate dissent from Justice Stephen Breyer saying that this decision today defies the promise of Brown versus the Board of Education.

MONTAGNE: That's pretty strong language. We just half a minute to go, but can you tell us what this decision says about the Roberts Court, in brief?

TOTENBERG: It says that the court is deeply divided, has a definite conservative view - that conservatives who have long thought to eliminate racial preferences and to do a whole lot of other things are succeeding in this court. And this was, for liberals, a terrible year, and for conservatives, a great one.

MONTAGNE: Nina, thanks very much.

TOTENBERG: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Nina Totenberg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.