BEGINNING this morning the U.S. Supreme Court will rethink the
legal remedies for curing racial discrimination in education,
employment and voting.
After reviewing the Kansas City school desegregation case and
several others over the next few months, the court may cut back
affirmative action, school desegregation and the Voting Rights Act.
The State of Missouri is at the head of the line, with
desegregation. Attorney General Jay Nixon will ask the court today
to clear the way for an end to the $1.3 billion school
desegregation plan that has remade the face of the Kansas City
schools. Nixon hopes the court will provide a roadmap for ending
school desegregation cases.
The federal courts in Missouri have ruled that it is too soon
to end state funding for desegregation programs. In 1993, a federal
appeals court said that students must first show academic gains
that make up for the academic damage of a century of school
But Nixon says segregation did not cause the poor academic
performance in the first place, so the courts didn't have the
authority to require the state to pay for educational improvements.
The Supreme Court's decision is likely to have an important
impact on the St. Louis school desegregation case, where Nixon is
also seeking an end to state obligations. U.S. District Judge
George F. Gunn has ordered the St. Louis School Board to come up
with goals for improving academic achievement.
Next week, the Supreme Court moves on to study the
constitutionality of a federal program that channels highway
contracts to minority firms. The case could limit Congress'
authority to require affirmative action.
Then, possibly in April, the court will take up voting rights
cases from Louisiana and Georgia. These challenge oddly shaped
congressional districts designed to give black candidates a good
chance of getting elected.
William L. Taylor, a veteran civil rights lawyer in Washington,
is concerned what the court might do.
"The ultimate danger of these cases is akin to what occurred at
the end of the first Reconstruction period," he said. "At the end
of the first Reconstruction era in the 1880s, the court said it was
time to stop treating the former slaves as the `special favorite of
the laws.' Does that sound familiar?"
But Nixon says that the "unprecedented resources" that the
state has "provided to near a full generation of students" in
Kansas City have provided them equal opportunity.
Nixon expects the current Supreme Court to be more receptive to
his argument than the last time the court took up the Kansas City
case in 1990. Missouri lost in a 5-4 ruling that permitted federal
courts to indirectly require tax increases to pay for desegregation.
Nixon is encouraged because all four dissenters are still on
the court, but four justices from the majority are not. Gone are
civil rights stalwarts Thurgood Marshall, William J. Brennan Jr.
and Harry Blackmun and the author of the 1990 decision, Byron R.
Replacing Marshall is Justice Clarence Thomas, who is likely to
side with the justices who have taken a dim view of the Kansas City
desegregation orders - Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and
Justices Antonin Scalia, Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy.
"We've lost our most eloquent voices and the character of the
court has changed," says Taylor. But he adds, "I don't know how
much the arithmetic has changed."
The key, both sides agree, is O'Connor. In general, O'Connor
has opposed rulings based on racial preferences, except in a few
cases where she could connect the preference with the past wrong. …