551 U.S. 701 (2007), 05-908, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School Dist. No. 1

Docket Nº:05-908, 05-915.
Citation:551 U.S. 701, 127 S.Ct. 2738, 168 L.Ed.2d 508
Party Name:PARENTS INVOLVED IN COMMUNITY SCHOOLS, Petitioner, v. SEATTLE SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 1 et al. Crystal D. Meredith, custodial parent and next friend of Joshua Ryan McDonald, Petitioner, Jefferson County Board of Education et al.
Case Date:June 28, 2007
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 701

551 U.S. 701 (2007)

127 S.Ct. 2738, 168 L.Ed.2d 508




Crystal D. Meredith, custodial parent and next friend of Joshua Ryan McDonald, Petitioner,


Jefferson County Board of Education et al.

Nos. 05-908, 05-915.

United States Supreme Court

June 28, 2007 [*]

Argued December 4, 2006


[127 S.Ct. 2740] Syllabus

Respondent school districts voluntarily adopted student assignment plans that rely on race to determine which schools certain children may attend. The Seattle district, which has never operated legally segregated schools or been subject to court-ordered desegregation, classified children as white or nonwhite, and used [127 S.Ct. 2741] the racial classifications as a "tiebreaker" to allocate slots in particular high schools. The Jefferson County, Ky., district was subject to a desegregation decree until 2000, when the District Court dissolved the decree after finding that the district had eliminated the vestiges of prior segregation to the greatest extent practicable. In 2001, the district adopted its plan classifying students as black or "other" in order to make certain elementary school assignments and to rule on transfer requests.

Petitioners, an organization of Seattle parents (Parents Involved) and the mother of a Jefferson County student (Joshua), whose children were or could be assigned under the foregoing plans, filed these suits contending, inter alia, that allocating children to different public schools based solely on their race violates the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection guarantee. In the Seattle case, the District Court granted the school district summary judgment, finding, inter alia, that its plan survived strict scrutiny on the federal constitutional claim because it was narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest. The Ninth Circuit affirmed. In the Jefferson County case, the District Court found that the school district had asserted a compelling interest in maintaining racially diverse schools, and that its plan was, in all relevant respects, narrowly tailored to serve that interest. The Sixth Circuit affirmed.


The judgments are reversed, and the cases are remanded. No. 05-908, 426 F.3d 1162; No. 05-915, 416 F.3d 513, reversed and remanded.

THE CHIEF JUSTICE delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, III-A, and III-C, concluding:

Page 702

1.The Court has jurisdiction in these cases. Seattle argues that Parents Involved lacks standing because its current members' claimed injuries are not imminent and are too speculative in that, even if the district maintains its current plan and reinstitutes the racial tiebreaker, those members will only be affected if their children seek to enroll in a high school that is oversubscribed and integration positive. This argument is unavailing; the group's members have children in all levels of the district's schools, and the complaint sought declaratory and injunctive relief on behalf of members whose elementary and middle school children may be denied admission to the high schools of their choice in the future. The fact that those children may not be denied such admission based on their race because of undersubscription or oversubscription that benefits them does not eliminate the injury claimed. The group also asserted an interest in not being forced to compete in a race-based system that might prejudice its members' children, an actionable form of injury under the Equal Protection Clause, see, e.g., Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Pena, 515 U.S. 200, 211, 115 S.Ct. 2097, 132 L.Ed.2d 158. The fact that Seattle has ceased using the racial tiebreaker pending the outcome here is not dispositive, since the district vigorously defends its program's constitutionality, and nowhere suggests that it will not resume using race to assign students if it prevails. See Friends of Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Environmental Services (TOC), Inc., 528 U.S. 167, 189, 120 S.Ct. 693, 145 L.Ed.2d 610. Similarly, the fact that Joshua has been granted a transfer does not eliminate the Court's jurisdiction; Jefferson County's racial guidelines apply at all grade levels and he may again be subject to race-based assignment in middle school. Pp. 718-720.

2. The school districts have not carried their heavy burden of showing that the interest they seek to achieve justifies the extreme means they have chosen--[127 S.Ct. 2742] discriminating among individual students based on race by relying upon racial classifications in making school assignments. Pp. 720-725, 733-735.

(a) Because "racial classifications are simply too pernicious to permit any but the most exact connection between justification and classification," Fullilove v. Klutznick, 448 U.S. 448, 537, 100 S.Ct. 2758, 65 L.Ed.2d 902 (STEVENS, J., dissenting), governmental distributions of burdens or benefits based on individual racial classifications are reviewed under strict scrutiny, e.g., Johnson v. California, 543 U.S. 499, 505-506, 125 S.Ct. 1141, 160 L.Ed.2d 949. Thus, the school districts must demonstrate that their use of such classifications is "narrowly tailored" to achieve a "compelling" government interest. Adarand, supra, at 227, 115 S.Ct. 2097.

Although remedying the effects of past intentional discrimination is a compelling interest under the strict scrutiny test, see Freeman v. Pitts, 503 U.S. 467, 494, 112 S.Ct. 1430, 118 L.Ed.2d 108, that interest is not involved here because the

Page 703

Seattle schools were never segregated by law nor subject to court-ordered desegregation, and the desegregation decree to which the Jefferson County schools were previously subject has been dissolved. Moreover, these cases are not governed by Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306, 328, 123 S.Ct. 2325, 156 L.Ed.2d 304, in which the Court held that, for strict scrutiny purposes, a government interest in student body diversity "in the context of higher education" is compelling. That interest was not focused on race alone but encompassed "all factors that may contribute to student body diversity," id., at 337, 123 S.Ct. 2325, including, e.g., having "overcome personal adversity and family hardship," id., at 338, 123 S.Ct. 2325. Quoting Justice Powell's articulation of diversity in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265, 314-315, 98 S.Ct. 2733, 57 L.Ed.2d 750, the Grutter Court noted that " 'it is not an interest in simple ethnic diversity, in which a specified percentage of the student body is in effect guaranteed to be members of selected ethnic groups,' that can justify the use of race," 539 U.S. at 324-325, 123 S.Ct. 2325, but " 'a far broader array of qualifications and characteristics of which racial or ethnic origin is but a single though important element, ' " id., at 325, 123 S.Ct. 2325. In the present cases, by contrast, race is not considered as part of a broader effort to achieve "exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints," id., at 330, 123 S.Ct. 2325; race, for some students, is determinative standing alone. The districts argue that other factors, such as student preferences, affect assignment decisions under their plans, but under each plan when race comes into play, it is decisive by itself. It is not simply one factor weighed with others in reaching a decision, as in Grutter; it is the factor. See Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244, 275, 123 S.Ct. 2411, 156 L.Ed.2d 257. Even as to race, the plans here employ only a limited notion of diversity, viewing race exclusively in white/nonwhite terms in Seattle and black/"other" terms in Jefferson County. The Grutter Court expressly limited its holding--defining a specific type of broad-based diversity and noting the unique context of higher education--but these limitations were largely disregarded by the lower courts in extending Grutter to the sort of classifications at issue here. Pp. 720-725.

(b) Despite the districts' assertion that they employed individual racial classifications in a way necessary to achieve their stated ends, the minimal effect these classifications have on student assignments suggests that other means would be effective. Seattle's racial tiebreaker results, in the end, only in shifting a small number of students between schools. Similarly, Jefferson [127 S.Ct. 2743] County admits that its use of racial classifications has had a minimal effect, and claims only that its guidelines provide a firm definition of the goal of racially integrated schools, thereby providing administrators with authority to collaborate with principals and staff to maintain schools within the desired range. Classifying and assigning schoolchildren according to a binary conception of

Page 704

race is an extreme approach in light of this Court's precedents and the Nation's history of using race in public schools, and requires more than such an amorphous end to justify it. In Grutter, in contrast, the consideration of race was viewed as indispensable in more than tripling minority representation at the law school there at issue. See 539 U.S. at 320, 123 S.Ct. 2325. While the Court does not suggest that greater use of race would be preferable, the minimal impact of the districts' racial classifications on school enrollment casts doubt on the necessity of using such classifications. The districts have also failed to show they considered methods other than explicit racial classifications to achieve their stated goals. Narrow tailoring requires "serious, good faith consideration of workable race-neutral alternatives," id., at 339, 123 S.Ct. 2325, and yet in Seattle several alternative assignment plans--many of which would not have used express racial classifications--were rejected with little or no...

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