Monday, July 2, 2007

Guest Blogger: The New Four Horsemen, Circumruling Precedent

by Pamela S. Karlan, Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Professor of Public Interest Law, Stanford University

The two big social issues that the Supreme Court confronted this Term were abortion, in Carhart v. Gonzales (Carhart II) and school integration in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School Dist. No. 1 (which decided cases from both Seattle and Louisville). In both cases, it seems clear that the replacement of Justice O’Connor by Justice Alito made a decisive difference: Carhart II “circumruled” (the Court didn’t outright overrule) Stenberg v. Carhart, in which Justice O’Connor was the decisive fifth vote, on the question whether the government can ban a particular abortion procedure without providing an exception for cases where the pregnant woman? health is at stake, and to some extent Planned Parenthood v. Casey (in which Justice O’Connor was in the three-Justice bloc that determined the outcome), on the way in which the undue burden standard is to be used.

Parents Involved circumruled School Committee of Boston v. Board of Education and Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg -- two venerable school desegregation precedents -- as well as Grutter v. Bollinger, the Michigan race-conscious admissions case, in which Justice O'Connor was again the crucial fifth vote. (One snarky aside: Parents Involved reads Grutter extremely narrowly, as a case about "diversity in higher education" -- one wonders, after the Chief Justice is done explaining an opinion he almost certainly would not have joined, and which the four remaining Justices who did join read in an entirely different way, why he didn't confine it further to "diversity at the University of Michigan Law School." According to the Chief Justice, "universities occupy a special niche in our constitutional tradition" due to the "expansive freedoms of speech and thought associated with the university environment." By contrast, in Morse v. Frederick, decided earlier this Term, the Court circumruled a series of cases recognizing that public school students also enjoy freedom of speech.)

Rather than rehash points that I imagine scores of other folks will be making, I want to focus on an additional similarity between Carhart II and Parents Involved before turning to a more specific doctrinal point: the utter gulf in language between the two sets of Justices. In Carhart II, the majority repeatedly refers to the women involved as "mothers," the fetus as the "unborn child," and the doctors as "abortionists." By contrast, the dissenters use quite different language. Similarly, in Parents Involved, the plurality repeatedly refers to the school boards' goal as "racial balancing" -- with Justice Thomas going so far at one point as calling it "forced racial mixing" (which sounds far more like the Jim Crow era segregationists than anything modern -- as if any student had a legally cognizable interest in attending a monoracial school). By contrast, Justice Kennedy and the dissenters use phrases like "working together," "integration," and "desegregation." As for differences between the two cases, why were the New Four Horsemen content in Carhart II to resolve ostensible uncertainty in the medical community over the health imperatives in favor of the government (in fact, the consensus cut entirely against the purported congressional ? findings?) and against the substantive due process rights of the women involved while in Parents Involved Justice Thomas goes precisely the opposite way, claiming that because social scientists ostensibly disagree on the educational benefits of integrated educations, the government has no compelling interest that can override a student's interest in race-blind school assignments? Could it have more to do with values that with doctrinal frameworks?

The pivotal vote in Parents Involved is, of course, Justice Kennedy's. And here, too, there's a similarity to Carhart II. In both cases, Justice Kennedy objects not so much to ends, but to means. His opinion for the Court in Carhart II does not challenge a woman's right to decide for herself whether to terminate a pregnancy, but he objects to her undergoing a procedure that disgusts him. He is confident -- without much empirical support -- that there are alternative procedures that would protect both the woman?s right to choose and the government's interest in preserving a particular moral tone. Similarly, in Parents Involved, Justice Kennedy's concurrence and concurrence in the judgment accepts -- indeed, celebrates and commits him to respecting -- the communities' desire to achieve racially integrated schools. He objects instead to the means they have chosen: race-conscious assignment of a relatively few students to attain, or maintain, integrated schools. Again he is confident -- without much empirical support -- that equally race-conscious, but less explicit, action could produce the same result.

This leads to my doctrinal point. The core of Justice Kennedy's opinion is his distinction between school board actions that look at individual students and equally race-conscious, integration-pursuing actions that operate on a more wholesale level. The critical passage appears on pages 8-9 of the slip opinion:

"School boards may pursue the goal of bringing together students of diverse backgrounds and races through other means, including strategic site selection of new schools; drawing attendance zones with general recognition of the demographics of neighborhoods; allocating resources for special programs; recruiting students and faculty in a targeted fashion; and tracking enrollments, performance, and other statistics by race. These mechanisms are race conscious but do not lead to different treatment based on a classification that tells each student he or she is to be defined by race, so it is unlikely any of them would demand strict scrutiny to be found permissible."

Many folks, I imagine, will fasten on this passage as a roadmap for continued efforts to dismantle segregated schools and produce what Green so aptly called "just schools." Of course, we should do that. Justice Kennedy has rejected the enterprise of dismantling the ideal of integration or barring the government from pursuing equality through inclusion. Here, as with Justice Powell and Justice O'Connor before him, Justice Kennedy leaves open a variety of mechanisms for pursuing desegregation, and we need to assist the public, school boards, and lower courts to develop and reinforce these strategies.

I want to focus on something else: this passage illustrates why the entire enterprise of strict judicial scrutiny for racial classifications has turned out badly. As I've pointed out in earlier work, strict scrutiny was the consequence, not the cause, of the Warren Court's great antidiscrimination decisions. It wasn't until 1964, in McLaughlin v. Florida, that the Court applied what's come to be known as strict scrutiny and by then, the Court had essentially finished the job of eradicating explicit racial classifications. The reason for this is that the Court rejected the clearly discriminatory purposes behind the explicit racial classifications it confronted in the 1960's. Does anyone seriously think that Virginia's criminalization of interracial marriage would have survived rationality review had that been used in Loving? Indeed, the only case I can think of where strict scrutiny has made a difference in protecting the rights of African Americans is the recent prison segregation case, Johnson v. California, and there Justices Scalia and Thomas would not have applied strict scrutiny because their commitment to deference to prison officials (who somehow seem more worthy of such respect than democratically elected school boards) outweighed their commitment to a color-blind Constitution.

Strict scrutiny has been essentially beside the point for the kind of equal protection cases African Americans and other persons of color have brought since its adoption. These cases usually involve challenges to facially neutral laws -- for example, the use of admissions tests that screen out minority applicants or the staggering disparities in criminal sentencing. In such cases, to trigger strict scrutiny, under Feeney v. Personnel Administrator of Massachusetts, plaintiffs must first prove that the government "selected or reaffirmed a particular course of action at least in part 'because of,' not merely 'in spite of,' its adverse effects upon an identifiable group." But the Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that "if the constitutional conception of 'equal protection of the laws' means anything, it must at the very least mean that a bare ... desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot constitute a legitimate, -- let alone a compelling, 'governmental interest.' " Thus, proof of an invidious motive by itself strips a law of its presumptive legitimacy. Once the plaintiff has shown a discriminatory purpose, the burden shifts to the defendants to prove that the law would have been enacted even without that purpose. As a practical matter, though, proof of an invidious intent to injure blacks or Hispanics is the ballgame. Few courts, having found that sort of malevolence, are likely to uphold a law anyway.

On the other hand, strict scrutiny has proved invaluable in the assault on race-conscious affirmative action. That is perhaps what drives Justice Stevens in his dissent to reiterate his 'one equal protection clause' theory -- a theory that Justice Marshall, who must be spinning in his grave at the misappropriation and willful misreading of his arguments in Brown, also adopted. And it may also explain Justice Breyer's reshaping, in the principal dissent, of what strict scrutiny ought to mean in context.

Oh, everything has been turned upside down, when Justice Thomas can write that "if our history has taught us anything, it has taught us to beware of elites bearing racial theories," seeing popularly elected, community based schools boards as the 'elite' and casting himself and the other New Four Horseman as the true representatives of the people. But as the Chief Justice says "history will be heard." And it will not be kind to Parents Involved.

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