Category: Race


Grutter Redo, Part 3

Recall that in a earlier post, I wrote about Judge Kozinski’s concurring opinion in the 9th Circuit ruling which upheld the Seattle school choice plan. His view was that rational basis review was preferable and strict scrutiny inappropriate because while the “program does use race as a criterion, [it does so] only to ensure that the population of each public school roughly reflects the city’s racial composition.” Kozinski’s position raises a number of interesting questions — at least one of which I alluded to before — the potential appeal of his approach to Justice Kennedy. But now I want to focus on the normative question which lies at the heart of Kozinski’s approach.

Let us set aside for a moment the Court’s view, which it has repeatedly reaffirmed in cases like Adarand, Grutter and Johnson v. California, that strict scrutiny review must apply to all racial classifications. The question I want to pose is this: is there a meaningful distinction between the racial preference that was at issue in Grutter, and the racial classification scheme that is challenged in the K-12 cases the Court has recently accepted. To assist you in answering this question, I’ll provide a quick review of the use of race in the two situations.

Grutter concerned the University of Michigan Law School’s admissions policy which sought to enroll a “critical mass of underrepresented minority students.” In short, while the policy did not set aside a fixed number of seats in the incoming class for minority group members, it did consider race or ethnicity “flexibly as a ‘plus’ factor in the context of individualized consideration of each and every applicant.” Even though race was used flexibly (no bonus points or set asides as was the case in Bakke), there is little doubt that with respect to some candidates, race was outcome determinative. That is, race was outcome determinative for some white candidates in the sense that minority group members with identical qualifications would have been admitted to the Law School while they were not. (We can address the standing difficulties raised under this scenario at a different time.)

Contrast the Law School’s admissions plan in Grutter with the Seattle school choice plan. Under the Seattle plan, race was used as a tiebreaker. In the first instance, students are given their choice of schools. It is only when a school becomes oversubscribed and racially imbalanced that the racial tiebreaker comes into play, and even then it only operates on the margins; effecting only schools where the “student body differs by more than 15 percent from the racial make up of the students of the Seattle public schools as a whole.” Finally, we should note that under the Seattle plan, no student is denied an opportunity to attend a public school in the school district; all students are placed in some public school within the district. Thus, Judge Kozinski’s view of the Seattle plan was, “that a student is denied a school of his choice may be disappointing, but it carries no racial stigma and says nothing at all about that individual’s aptitude or ability.”

Do you agree? Are the Grutter and Seattle plans distinguishable? Is it really true that one plan attaches “stigma” to a frustrated applicant while the other inflicts no such stigmatic harm to the students? Isn’t one argument that the stigmatic impact of each plan is a matter of degree. If that’s the case, then perhaps Kozinski is right after all that a heightened form of rational basis review is superior because it would allow the Court to take all of the relevant facts into consideration. Unless you think strict scrutiny, in the race context at least, already performs this function.


Grutter redo, part 2

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.


Fourth Circuit Weighs In On Racist Talk In The Workplace

Full Court Press has a good post on a recent Fourth Circuit decision, Jordan v. Alternative Resources Corp., in which a divided panel upheld the dismissal of a Title VII race discrimination suit. In particular, the plaintiff argued that he had been fired in retaliation for making a complaint to management about what he perceived as a racially hostile working environment. The post at Full Court Press offers many more details, but the core of the court’s holding was that the employee was “unreasonable” in believing that his co-worker’s comments created a hostile working environment.

What were these comments that no reasonable African-American man could possibly have seen creating a hostile work environment? While watching a news account of the arrest of the DC snipers, his co-worker exclaimed: “they should put those two black monkeys in a cage with black apes and let the apes fuck them.” That according to the dissent. The majority redacted the text a bit, so that the gentlememan only suggested that the apes “f–k” them. In the aftermath of this incident, the plaintiff was told by colleagues that this offending speaker had used similar language in the past.

Two thoughts. First, it was interesting to see the majority turn what was clearly family-unfriendly language into, well, family-barely-friendly text. Apparently, for the majority, the “fuck” aspect of this comment was most offensive. Calling African-Americans monkeys – and thereby calling upon a rich history of bigotry – was merely being accurate. (No doubt some will argue that the “fuck” was irrelevant to the claim here, since it was grounded on the monkey image. But that is clearly debatable, if only because the term amplified the speakers intensity of hate.) Judge King’s dissent was very aggressive in terms of word choice. FIrst, he restated the facts, including the word “fuck.” Then, when citing contrary authority, he explicitly noted in parentheticals that those cases involved the use of the term “nigger.” We all know that the mere act of uttering this word is powerful and controversial. His point, presumably, was that any assessment of whether such abusive language could be reasonably viewed as creating a hostile environment cannot occur when the majority is perfuming these statements. Racist language must be addressed squarely, because the mere softening of terminology in a recitation of facts serves to retell a false narrative, one that the plaintiff never experienced. (In some ways, the panel’s decision to obscure the actual language – characterizing it rather than providing a precise image – brings to mind Eugene Volokh’s argument that you can’t discuss the cartoons spoofing Mohammed without seeing the precise images that are under discussion.)

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Racial Separation

Yesterday’s NY Times included an article about separate drunk driving courts in Phoenix for Spanish-speakers and Native Americans. I wasn’t particularly troubled about having special courts for Spanish speakers. As a practical matter, such courts will operate more quickly and efficiently because they will not need translators. At the same time, it seems likely that the proceedings will be, and will be perceived by to be, fairer. This is because Spanish speakers will presumably understand much more of what is occurring in the courtroom. (For example, defendants may benefit from understanding the proceedings in other cases, as well as from understanding the informal courtroom patter that would otherwise go untranslated.)

Creating special courts for Native Americans is different. On one hand, specialty courts are neither new nor troubling. As I’ve written, drug courts and mental health courts provide special benefits because the feature judges with specialized knowledge, as well as a more developed support staff trained to address particularly challenging personal problems. There are reasons to believe such courts may reduce recidivism because their sentences are more effective. But why couldn’t a specialized drunk-driving court provide that sort of individualized treatment plan for both Native Americans and non-Native Americans?

It seems to me that the only basis for having a separate race-based tribunal is if the use of a general tribunal itself prevents effective treatment. Thus we should ask whether there is something about having a special venue that changes the experience for the defendants. That is, do many Native Americans speak more openly in the Native American court? Do they acknowledge their problems more easily there? Do they follow court orders more frequently in such courts? Do lawyers advocate more aggressively in these courts? Even if the answers are yes, I’m not at all sure that I’d support these race-based courts. There are broad social costs to creating race-segregated courts; it seems far wiser to build a single inclusive tribunal.

On a separate note, I’ve been thinking a bit about recent happenings at NYU Law. As some others have noted, students at my alma mater are petitioning the Dean for creation of a “minority lounge.” The space would be open to all members of the community but according to one student, “it should be understood that this is a place where students of color can go to feel comfortable, to talk without hesitation, to be surrounded by those that understand or are more open to understanding their experience in law school.”

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