Citation. 551 U.S. 701 (2007)
Seattle and Jefferson County adopted student assignment plans that relied on students’ race to varying degrees. Plaintiffs’ children were denied assignment to particular schools under these plans.
A student assignment plan based in part on race does not pass strict scrutiny where the plan only has a minimal effect on the asserted interest in diversity, and where other policy options are available.
Seattle and Jefferson County adopted student assignment plans that relied on students’ race to varying degrees. In Seattle, incoming ninth grade students could rank their high schools of choice in order of preference. If too many students listed the same school, the district would employ tiebreakers. The second tiebreaker used was race—if an oversubscribed school is not within 10 percentage points of the district’s overall white/nonwhite racial balance, the district would select a student who would bring the school closer to that balance.
In 1975, a federal court ordered Jefferson County to desegregate its school system. In 2000, the Court found that the district had achieved integration to the greatest extent practicable, and dissolved the desegregation order. Thereafter, Jefferson County adopted the student assignment plan at issue in this case. The plan required all nonmagnet schools to maintain populations of Black students within the range of 15 to 50 percent. For elementary schools, students were designated a “resides” school to which students within a specific geographic area were assigned. Resides schools were grouped together to facilitate integration. Students whose parents did not submit an application indicating their preferred schools within their cluster were assigned within the cluster by the district. If the school had reached the limits of the racial guidelines, students would not be assigned to schools where they would contribute to the school’s racial imbalance.
Plaintiffs’ children were denied assignment to particular schools under these plans.
Did the school assignment plans that considered students’ race violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?
Yes, the school assignment plans violated the Equal Protection Clause.
Justice Stevens argues that is wrong for the plurality to rely on law intended to further racial equality, like the Fourteenth Amendment and Brown, to invalidate measures enacted to achieve equal educational opportunities.
Justice Breyer begins by citing evidence that both Seattle and Louisville once had highly segregated schools. He argues that the school boards in each city adopted the plans at issue to achieve racial diversity in schools, and that they adapted the plans over time to lessen their reliance on race.
Justice Breyer argues that, in Swann, the Supreme Court established that the Equal Protection Clause allows governments to adopt race-conscious measures to improve conditions of race, even when not obligated to do so by the Constitution. Other branches of government have accepted this as well, and it is in line with the intent of those who wrote the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice Breyer argues that there is reason to believe that those drafters understood that there is a difference between using racial criteria to keep the races apart and using racial criteria to unify the races.
Justice Breyer also argues that Swann had not been overruled by subsequent cases. He also argues that the context here is not one in which race is being used to decide who will receive benefits in short supply that are normally distributed based on merit, or other contexts that would require a strict scrutiny analysis. Regardless, he proceeds to analyze the student assignment plans under strict scrutiny, and finds that they pass the test. According to Justice Breyer, the interest at stake here—integration—possesses three essential elements: a remedial element, an educational benefit element, and a social benefit element.
Next, Justice Breyer also finds that the plan is narrowly tailored. He argues that it is not a forbidden racial quota system, race is not the predominant factor in either plan, and that the school boards developed the plans in ways that reflect narrow tailoring. He also argues that there are no alternative policies that would be more narrowly tailored to the interest in integration.
Justice Breyer concludes by listing the consequences of the pluralities holding: the plurality’s holding will increase litigation and invalidate many laws, undercut the democratic process, and threaten the promise of Brown.
Justice Thomas rebuts two dissenting arguments. First, he argues that the social science on the educational benefits of racial balancing is inconclusive. Additionally, he argues that the Constitution is color-blind.
Justice Kennedy agrees that the student assignment plans here were not narrowly tailored, but he disagrees with the notion of a color-blind Constitution, arguing that race can sometimes be considered. Justice Kennedy disagrees with the plurality’s argument that the way to stop racial discrimination is to stop discriminating based on race entirely. School districts do not have to accept racial isolation in schools, and can work to remedy it.
Under strict scrutiny, the school districts needed to show that the racial classifications in their student assignment plans were narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest.
One potential compelling interest is remedying the effects of past intentional discrimination. The Court found that this interest was not available here. According to the Court, Seattle public schools did not show that they were segregated by law, and a court found that Jefferson County schools were integrated to the greatest practicable extent in 2000.
Another compelling interest is the interest in diversity. In Grutter, the Court upheld a higher education admissions program that considered applicants’ race.
The Court distinguished Grutter from the present case. According to the court, the admissions program in Grutter only considered race as part of a holistic review of each applicant as an individual. Additionally, in Grutter, the Court relied on characteristics unique to institutions of higher education to reach its conclusion. In the present case, institutions of higher education were not involved.
Plaintiffs asserted the interest of racial diversity within schools, arguing that racial integration would have educational and socialization benefits. The Court did not decide whether these benefits were a compelling interest, because it held that the student assignment plans were not narrowly tailored to achieve the benefits. The Court found that the plans were only directed at achieving racial balance, which is an illegitimate interest. According to the Court, the plans only had a minimal effect on student assignments, suggesting other means would be more effective. Additionally, the Court found that bringing people of different races together was not a sufficient justification because the Equal Protection Clause protects people, not groups, according to Brown. The Court also listed other available policies that could help achieve greater diversity in schools, and the costs of the plans at issue here—namely, the use of the law to distinguish between people of different races, which, the Court argues, is contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment and Brown.