The Court’s acceptance of the two K-12 cases raises so many interesting questions that it is difficult to know where to start. For this post, I’ll quickly recap the facts and ask a question about Justice Kennedy’s potentially pivotal role in deciding the cases. Later posts will address other issues raised by the cases.
Both cases deal with “voluntary” desegregation plans where there is no court order otherwise requiring desegregation. In both cases, the school districts sought to break the link between residential and school segregation. Given the racially segregated nature of the neighborhoods within the school districts, an uncontrolled school choice plan would have likely replicated such segregation within the schools. Instead, the districts sought to both preserve neighborhood school choice and produce more integrated public schools. As a general matter, one school district used race as a tiebreaker. In this district, students were given their choice of schools, race notwithstanding; race came into play as a tiebreaker for oversubscribed schools that were racially imbalanced. In the other district, the school board established black student enrollment ranges. Administrators then used race as one factor among many (residence, school capacity, popularity, student’s choice, etc.) to achieve enrollment within those ranges.
Both the 6th and 9th Circuits upheld these plans, applying the Grutter “student body diversity” rationale to the K-12 context. In this post, I want to focus on just one question: Justice Kennedy’s role. While it is true that two new justices have joined the Court since Grutter, I think it highly likely that both Roberts and Alito will vote to strike these plans down (we can debate exactly how they will do this at a later date). I believe Kennedy’s vote will be pivotal. While it is true that Kennedy dissented in Grutter, essentially arguing that the Law School’s affirmative action plan was not narrowly tailored under the strict scrutiny test, I believe there may be a way to reach him here. But how? Enter Judge Kozinski.
In the 9th Circuit opinion, Judge Kozinski wrote an interesting concurrence. In it, he argued that a heightened form of “rational basis” review ought to apply to the case. His theory was that the Seattle plan wasn’t really an “affirmative action” plan given that it concerned admission to K-12 education. According to Kozinski, it had none of the “defects” associated with other racial preference schemes because “there is no competition between the races, and no race is given a preference over another. That a student is denied the school of his choice may be disappointing, but it carries no racial stigma and says nothing at all about the individual’s aptitude or ability.” Thus, from Kozinski’s perspective, strict scrutiny need not apply — and instead a less deferential form of rational basis review would do. Given Kennedy’s position in Romer and Lawrence, will Kennedy be persuaded by Kozinski’s argument? If so, it would allow him to uphold the plans and to distinguish his position in Grutter, where arguably, strict scrutiny had to apply.