Demonstration for integration at Supreme Court.

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a pair of school desegregation cases Monday that drew demonstrators and caused women’s rights activists to express concern about the outcome.

If the court strikes down voluntary race-based policies in two school systems, it would be “a reversal of historic proportions” that would hasten the return to segregated public schools, Theodore Shaw, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said at a news conference after the hearings concluded.

That would be particularly bad for women of color–and women in general–argued Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center, a legal advocacy group for women’s rights in Washington, D.C.

“Desegregation benefits all students and is particularly important for women because it shatters stereotypes that have long hindered equal opportunity for women of color and women across the board,” Greenberger said in a statement.

She said racial integration helps women of all races and cited surveys of student graduation rates, standardized test scores, college attendance and other indicators that demonstrate that females benefit from diverse educational environments.

Integrated schools tend to offer a higher quality education than racially isolated schools and that often helps lift women of color out of poverty, Greenberger said in a statement accompanying a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the National Women’s Law Center, the National Partnership for Women and Families and many other women’s rights groups. Such briefs are filed to provide the court additional information, context and history. The brief contends that racial integration provides a more challenging educational environment that encourages students to move beyond stereotypes and recognize individuals as unique and complex.

Cases in Louisville and Seattle

Hundreds of demonstrators braved the bitter winter cold and gathered on the court’s marble proscenium to rally for racially integrated schools. “We won’t go to the back of the bus,” they chanted. “Integration is a must.”

At issue are voluntary school integration programs in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle that use race-conscious student assignment policies to enhance racial balance in public elementary and high schools.

As a result of the programs, some children are not permitted to attend their first-choice school, a grievance that prompted some parents to file suit.

In Kentucky, Crystal Meredith filed suit against the Jefferson County Public School District after it denied her son, Joshua McDonald, a white student, the opportunity to transfer from the nearby Young Elementary School to an elementary school farther from his home. The district ruled against the transfer because it would have reduced the share of white students attending Young, thereby putting it in danger of violating the district’s racial guidelines, according to a case summary published by the American Bar Association.

Federal district and appellate courts upheld the constitutionality of the program.

In Washington, a group of parents sued the Seattle school district when their children were not assigned to their first-choice schools. In their suit, the parents challenged the district’s “tiebreaker” system, which used race as one of several factors to determine how to allocate students among popular, “oversubscribed” schools and less popular schools.

A federal district court rejected the parents’ claims on summary judgment, but a three-judge panel on the Ninth Circuit reversed the decision, ruling that the school’s plan violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

The Supreme Court justices are expected to issue a ruling before the end of June 2007, when the current term ends.

Justices Show No Unanimity

As they grilled lawyers on both sides of the case, the justices showed no unanimity.

Most attention was paid to Justice Anthony Kennedy, who, in the wake of the retirement of moderate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, is considered the court’s new centrist.

Kennedy has opposed racial classifications in the past, but during Monday’s hearings he questioned lawyers on both sides of the case.

In one exchange, he asked Harry Korrell, the lawyer who argued the Seattle case on behalf of the Seattle parents, if a school’s location can be chosen to achieve the goal of racial integration. Korrell suggested that it could not, to which Kennedy replied: “Assuming some race-conscious measures are permissible to have diversity, isn’t it odd to say you can’t use race as a means?”

But Kennedy changed tune when he compared the Seattle school district’s system to a system of racial quotas, a practice he said was found “patently unconstitutional” three years ago under a University of Michigan affirmative action case. “Isn’t that what we have here?” he asked.

Teddy Gordon, who represented Meredith in the Louisville case, saw the line of questions as a positive sign for his case. “I received no negative questions from any of the justices,” he said at a news conference after the hearings.

Michael Madden, attorney for Seattle school district.

The NAACP’s Shaw conceded that Kennedy will be a “difficult vote to get here.”

Indeed, Kennedy was one of the four dissenters in the University of Michigan affirmative action case. And the replacement of O’Connor with Justice Samuel Alito, who is considered more conservative, doesn’t bode well for the defense.

But Madden held out hope that Kennedy would reverse his past decisions and join the four other more liberal justices on the court to create a new majority that would uphold the racial integration programs. “Kennedy asked some thoughtful questions,” Madden said. “He’s holding his fire on this to hear the view of his colleagues.”

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

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For more information:

United States Supreme Court:

Transcript of Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District

Transcript of Crystal D. Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education

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