Nearly seven months have passed since the Supreme Court heard arguments about public school integration plans. A decision, it seems, is finally at hand.
Whether school districts can use race as a factor in assigning students to schools is the biggest unresolved issue among the eight remaining cases. But as the court enters what is expected to be the final week of its term, several other important topics loom. They include disputes over limits on speech, separation of church and state and executing the mentally ill.
The court’s final days are being watched perhaps even more closely than usual this year because this is the first full term for Chief Justice John Roberts and the current lineup of justices.
Decisions so far in cases on abortion, discrimination and the rights of defendants have put the court on a more conservative footing with the addition of President Bush’s two appointees, Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.
“It will tell us so much more about the Roberts court when we see decisions on hot-button issues like race and religion,” said Thomas Goldstein, a Washington lawyer who argues before the court and follows it closely.
It is typical for justices to leave some of the hardest cases to the end, writing opinions that have been the subject of lengthy negotiations and that often are accompanied by multiple dissents and concurrences.
“The court may be the least dangerous branch, but it doesn’t want to be the least interesting, said Douglas Kmiec, a Pepperdine University law professor and former Republican administration official.
“Holding the most compelling matters to the end is also a function of legal difficulty, and of course, it also bolsters and reaffirms the court’s importance,” he said.
The court last tackled the topic of race and education in 2003, upholding the consideration of race in admissions to the University of Michigan law school.
Since then, however, the author of that opinion, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, has retired. Alito took her place.
When the court heard challenges to school assignment plans in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle in December, a majority of the justices appeared inclined to strike down one or both plans.
Roberts was among the justices critical of taking race into account. He commented that the legacy of the court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 outlawing state-sponsored segregated schools should be race-blind programs.
“The purpose of the Equal Protection Clause is to ensure that people are treated as individuals rather than based on the color of their skin,” Roberts said in December.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of four liberal justices, put the matter differently when she addressed a conference of judges and lawyers recently in Bolton Landing, N.Y. She suggested that the purpose of the plans is to keep schools from looking as they did before the Brown ruling and subsequent decisions requiring desegregation.
In remarks aired by the C-SPAN cable network, Ginsburg said the justices “will determine whether the Equal Protection Clause prohibits race-conscious efforts by school districts to prevent resegregation.”
– Associated Press
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