Court Sets New Test for Judging Desegregation Efforts

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The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that Mississippi has not proved it has rid its higher-education system of the effects of state-mandated racial segregation could have long-lasting ramifications, legal analysts believe.

The High Court set a new standard for examining desegregation efforts in public colleges and universities that could be applied to more than a dozen Southern and border states that once operated separate higher-education systems for whites and blacks.

States must do more than simply declare that traditionally white or black institutions are open to students of any race, wrote Associate Justice Byron R. White in the Court's 8-to-1 ruling in U.S. v. Fordice (Case No. 90-1205).

The June 26 decision was the Court's first on the duty of states to desegregate their universities. Although the Justices applied the principles of their desegregation decisions governing elementary and secondary schools, they noted that the critical difference at the college level is that students are free to choose which institutions to attend.

But simply because "college attendance is by choice and not by assignment does not mean that a race-neutral admissions policy cures the constitutional violation of a dual system,'' Justice White wrote. "If policies traceable to the de jure system are still in force and have discriminatory effects, those policies too must be reformed to the extent practicable and consistent with sound educational practices.''

The Court overturned lower-court rulings that Mississippi had met its burden to desegregate by opening all its institutions to students of any race.

In the 30 years since the University of Mississippi was forced by a court to accept its first black student, the state's five formerly all-white institutions have remained largely white and its three historically black universities have remained mostly black.

The state was sued by a group of black residents and the federal government. Both were appealing an unfavorable ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

The High Court found that at least four aspects of Mississippi's system were "constitutionally suspect'': admissions standards, which were different for white and black institutions; the "mission assignments'' for the eight institutions; the duplication of programs at the white and black universities; and the "continued operation'' of all eight universities.

The Court returned the case to lower federal courts, where Mississippi will have a chance to prove that its current practices are not tied to past discrimination.

Some educators fear that the ruling may harm historically black public universities in Mississippi and other states. The High Court rejected the black plaintiffs' suggestion that historically black institutions should be enhanced because of underfunding by the state government.

"The state provides these facilities for all its citizens'' and does not meet its burden to desegregate "when it perpetuates a separate, but 'more equal''' system, Justice White wrote.

Other Action

In other action at the end of its term, the Court:

Upheld most restrictions on abortion included in a Pennsylvania law while at the same time reaffirming the "essence'' of the constitutional right to abortion. The Court, ruling 5 to 4 in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (No. 91-744), held that Pennsylvania's requirement that minors obtain informed parental consent to get an abortion did not violate the Constitution.

Rejected a challenge to a key provision of California's propertytax-limitation law, Proposition 13. The Justices ruled 8 to 1 in Nordlinger v. Hahn (No. 90-1912) to uphold the provision that freezes property taxes on homes purchased before 1975. Educators feared that the state's entire tax structure would have been thrown into upheaval if any portion of Proposition 13 had been overturned.

Struck down a St. Paul ordinance that made it a crime to arouse "anger or alarm'' based on "race, color, creed, religion, or gender.'' The ruling in R.A.V. v. St. Paul (No. 90-7675) may apply to colleges and universities that have adopted speech or conduct codes that limit "hate speech.''

  • Refused to review lower-court rulings denying a group of Lubbock, Tex., parents the opportunity to intervene in the desegregation suit against the Lubbock Independent School District. The case is Hill v. Texas Education Agency (No. 91-1569).

Let stand a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that allowed the nonteaching staff at a Roman Catholic boys' home to organize a union. The case is Hanna Boys Center v. National Labor Relations Board (No. 91-1388).

Vol. 11, Issue 40, Page 41

Published in Print: August 5, 1992, as Court Sets New Test for Judging Desegregation Efforts
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