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Race-conscious school placement cases argued at Supreme Court

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] heard two hours of oral arguments [transcript, PDF] Monday in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 [Duke Law case backgrounder; merit briefs], 05-908, and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education [Duke Law case backgrounder; merit briefs], 05-915. Both cases present the question of whether the court's 2003 decisions in affirmative action cases involving the University of Michigan, Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger [text], allow public school districts to assign students to schools based partly on race, so that the racial makeup of each school roughly mirrors that of the district. In the Seattle case, parents sought an injunction against the school district, arguing that the consideration of race violated the equal protection guarantee of the 14th Amendment [text]. The district court upheld the policy. A panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, applying the strict scrutiny standard of the Michigan cases and finding that the policy was not narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling state interest. Following an en banc review, however, the full Ninth Circuit reversed the panel [opinion, PDF] and sided with the school district. Likewise, in the Missouri case, the district court refused to issue an injunction against the school district and upheld the policy under strict scrutiny. The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed [opinion, PDF].

During Monday's arguments, school district attorneys likened the policies to the admissions process upheld in Grutter, emphasizing that race is only one factor in assigning students, and they distinguished the policies from the admissions system struck down in Gratz, pointing out that their decisions merely redistribute students rather than denying them admission to an institution. Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy [OYEZ profiles] appeared to express skepticism at some of the districts' arguments. Kennedy, who joined the majority in Gratz but dissented in Grutter, said assigning some students to schools based not upon their choice but on race is "like saying everybody can have a meal but only [some] people ... can get the dessert." AP has more.

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