Court to Study Racism Remedies Kansas City's Schools Case Will Start off Justices' Work

By William H. Freivogel Of the Post-Dispatch | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), January 11, 1995 | Go to article overview

Court to Study Racism Remedies Kansas City's Schools Case Will Start off Justices' Work


William H. Freivogel Of the Post-Dispatch, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


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 segregation.

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. White.

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. …

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