High Court Hears Arguments in Miss. Desegregation Case

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WASHINGTON--The State of Mississippi has a duty to eliminate the vestiges of segregation in its higher-education system that continue to hamper the college choices of its black high-school graduates, lawyers representing the Bush Administration and a group of black residents told the U.S. Supreme Court last week.

"This is the history Mississippi wants to walk away from," said Alvin O. Chambliss Jr., the lawyer for a group of black residents who sued the state in 1975 over racial disparities in its public colleges and universities. 'The system rooted in the days of apartheid in Mississippi still exists."

William F. Goodman Jr., a special assistant attorney general of Mississippi, told the Justices that the state met its constitutional duty to eliminate segregation in the 1970's with its good-faith effort the adopt racially neutral enrollment policies for its colleges and universities.

"The crux of this case is a belief by the petitioners that the predominantly black institutions are entitled to be enhanced at the hands of the state," Mr. Goodman said, referring to calls by the plaintiffs and the Administration for Mississippi to eliminate funding disparities to its three historically black universities.

But Solicitor General Kenneth W. Starr, representing the federal government, said that Mississippi's declaration that all students have the freedom to choose where to attend college was not enough to compensate for the state's 120-year history of maintaining racially dual systems of higher education.

All of the Justices actively joined in the questioning of the three lawyers during oral arguments on Nov. 13, but only a few gave any indication of their leanings in the consolidated cases, U.S.v. Mabus and Ayers v. Mabus, (Case Nos. 90-1205 and 90-6588). The cases mark the first time the Supreme Court has dealt squarely with the issue of desegregation in the context of an entire state system of higher education.

Remedial Plan Sought

Both the plaintiffs and the Administration have asked the High Court to return their case to the U.S. District Court in Oxford, Miss., for development of a remedial plan to further desegregate the state system, which currently includes five predominantly white and three predominantly black institutions.

The state maintained a racially dual higher-education system until 1962, when James Meredith became the first black student to enroll in the University of Mississippi.

Enrollment at the three historically black institutions remains 94 percent to 99 percent black, while enrollment at the formerly all-white universities remains 77 percent to 91 percent white.

After a five-week trial in 1987, a full 12 years after the suit was filed, U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers dismissed the action against the governor and state education officials.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed Judge Biggers's ruling in February 1990.

But after a rehearing, the full appeals court affirmed the district court opinion, ruling 9 to 4 in September 1990 that the state's adoption of race-neutral enrollment policies meant that all students have an opportunity to attend the college of their choice.

One central issue in the case is whether the High Court should be guided by its long string of precedents regarding desegregation of elementary and secondary schools, or whether another standard should apply because of the voluntary nature of student enrollment at the postsecondary level.

The appeals court in Mississippi last year cited the High Court's 1986 ruling in a case that dealt peripherally with desegregation at the higher-education level.

In Bazemore v. Friday, the Supreme Court ruled that North Carolina State University had met its constitutional duty to desegregate its 4-H and Homemakers clubs by offering a "freedom of choice" enrollment plan, even though the clubs remained largely segregated in fact.

Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, and David H. Souter all suggested that the Mississippi case involved greater administrative and historical links between the state education system and the legacy of official segregation than the situation in the Bazemore case.

"A 4-H Club is not structured with all of the administrative baggage of a university," Justice Souter said.

"Where racial identifiability is caused by the state, we are asking whether that calls for affirmative action to correct," Justice Kennedy said to the state's lawyer, Mr. Goodman.

"And we have done that," Mr. Goodman replied.

Justice O'Connor suggested that the Bazemore decision "was grounded in the fact that the segregation in those clubs wasn't attributable to the state," but that the State of Mississippi may be more responsible for continued racial disparities among its colleges and universities.

Personal Preference?

Justice Clarence Thomas asked Mr. Goodman whether the state was under any greater obligation to provide more funding to a historically black institution that suffered under official segregation. Mr. Goodman said it was not.

Justice Antonin Scalia seemed to question the logic of providing more aid to historically black institutions.

"If de facto segregation is logically the result of personal preference" by students, he said, then the proposed remedy of providing more aid to the black institutions would serve to reinforce segregation.

"Is that the system you want, or the system you want us to destroy?" Justice Scalia asked Mr. Chambliss.

"We want better, more fair, desegregated education," Mr. Chambliss replied.

Solicitor General Starr argued that the improved funding of historically black institutions should be combined with the elimination of factors that have served to dissuade black students from choosing the traditionally white colleges and universities.

"Seventy percent of black students do not have the choice"to attend the predominantly white institutions primarily because of the higher cutoff score on the American College Test required for admissions, he said.

Mississippi requires an A.C.T. composite score of 15 (out of a possible 36) for automatic admission to its historically white institutions. The equivalent minimum is now 13 for the historically black universities.

Mr. Starr argued that the state uses the test alone as an admissions standard, contrary to the recommendations of its publisher, and he called on state education officials to consider high-school grades in the enrollment process.

Vol. 11, Issue 12, Page 25

Published in Print: November 20, 1991, as High Court Hears Arguments in Miss. Desegregation Case
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