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Court strikes down school integration plans, ends Term

UPDATED to 11 a.m.
Concluding its current Term with a historic ruling on race in public policy, the Supreme Court divided 5-4 on Thursday in striking down voluntary integration plans in the public schools of Seattle and Louisville. Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., wrote the majority opinion in the combined cases. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy did not join all of the majority opinion, but joined in the result. Kennedy suggested in a separate opinion that the Chief Justice’s opinion, in part, “is at least open to the interpretation that the Constitution requires school districts to ignore the problem of de facto resegregation in schooling. I cannot endorse that conclusion.”

“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” Roberts wrote. On the two school plans, the majority found that the districts have “failed to provide the necessary support for the proposition that there is no other way than individual racial classifications to avoid racial isolation in their school districts.”

The Chief Justice, in his oral announcement of the ruling, insisted that the Court was remaining faithful to Brown v. Board of Education in barring public school districts from assigning students on the basis of race. Answering that, Justice John Paul Stevens said in dissent that there was a “cruel irony” in making that claim, because it involved a rewriting of the history “of one of this Court’s most important decisions.” Stevens noted that he joined the Court in 1975, and asserted that “no member of the Court” at that time “would have agreed with today’s decision.”

Justice Kennedy recited from his separate opinion, in which he declined to join the Roberts opinion as it discussed the lack of a compelling interest in achieving racial balance in public school classrooms. The Chief Justice’s opinion notes that Seattle was never officially segregated by race, and that Louisville is no longer under a court order to desegregate its once-segregated system. Kennedy said in his concurrence that ending racial isolation may sometimes be a compelling interest in public education, and can be pursued with race as “one component” of the plan to achieve racial diversity.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer next opened his microphone and began a long recital for the dissenters. The several oral statements made the announcement one of the longest in years, running for 41 minutes.

At the end of Breyer’s discussion, the Court recessed for the summer, to return for new Term on Monday, Oct. 1. Concluding orders for this Term, the Chief Justice announced, will be released at 10 a.m. Friday.