Law & Courts

High Court Lets Stand Ruling On Race-Based Admissions

By Mark Walsh — October 11, 2000 4 min read

The U.S. Supreme Court passed up another opportunity last week to consider the constitutionality of school enrollment decisions based on race. The court on Oct. 2 declined to hear the appeal of a family that had challenged racial preferences in student admissions at a laboratory school run by the University of California, Los Angeles.

Acting on hundreds of pending appeals on the first formal day of their new term, the justices also declined to take up the case of a student who was disciplined for drawing a Confederate flag while in class, and they vacated a federal appeals court decision that had upheld student-led prayers at graduation ceremonies. (“Schools Can Restrict Valedictory Messages, Court Rules,” Oct. 11, 2000.)

The admissions case involved the criteria used in such decisions at Corinne A. Seeds University Elementary School, a 460-student school operated by UCLA’s graduate school of education. In order to conduct research on urban education, the school admits students based on such criteria as socioeconomic background, race, primary language, and gender.

Keeley T. Hunter, a daughter of white and Asian-American parents was 4 years old in 1994 when her parents applied for her admission to the school. At a disadvantage under the school’s criteria, she was not admitted.

The girl’s mother filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the school’s policies violate the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. Both a federal district court and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, based in San Francisco, upheld the school’s racial preferences. They said that for the lab school to carry out its research mission, it must be able to admit a student population that mirrors that of the urban communities it is designed to help.

One member of the three-judge appeals court panel dissented, saying the majority’s view “reflects a disquieting renewed tolerance for the use of race in governmental decisionmaking.”

In its appeal to the Supreme Court, the family cited various court decisions of recent years that have struck down racial preferences in education unless they were meant to make up for past discrimination.

But the high court declined the appeal in Hunter v. Regents of the University of California (Case No. 00-135) without comment.

The justices also sidestepped the issue in 1996, when they declined to review the Hopwood v. Texas case, a much-debated ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, that struck down racial preferences in admissions to the University of Texas law school.

And in March, the high court declined to review a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., striking down a policy of the Montgomery County, Md., school district that took race into consideration in student transfers. A similar appeal involving race-based assignment of students in the Arlington County, Va., district was withdrawn before the justices had a chance to consider it.

Racial Tensions

In the Confederate-flag case, a 7th grader identified as T.W. was suspended for three days in 1998 by the Derby, Kan., district after he drew a version of the flag on a piece of paper in class.

The 6,800-student district had enacted a policy against racial harassment and intimidation that barred the Confederate flag and other racially sensitive symbols. The policy was a response to months of racial tension at Derby High School in 1995, when some white students wore clothing bearing the Confederate images, while some black students wore shirts bearing the letter X to show their support for the teachings of Malcolm X.

T.W.'s father sued on the boy’s behalf to challenge his suspension, arguing that it violated his First Amendment right to free speech. But a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, upheld the school district.

District officials “had reason to believe that a student’s display of the Confederate flag might cause disruption and interfere with the rights of other students to be secure and let alone,” the three-judge appeals court panel said in its unanimous decision.

The Supreme Court declined without comment to hear the family’s appeal in West v. Derby Unified School District (No. 99-2039).

The court will decide sometime this fall whether to accept another appeal involving student discipline over the Confederate flag. In that case, a Florida student who participates in Civil War re-enactments was suspended on a charge of attempting to incite a school riot after he refused to put away a small Confederate flag and urged another student whose T-shirt displayed the flag to stand up for his rights.

In another case, the court declined to hear the appeal of a group of female high school athletes who sued the Kentucky High School Athletic Association over its refusal to sanction fast-pitch softball.

The girls argued that the association violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs that receive federal funds, by sanctioning boys’ baseball but not girls’ fast-pitch softball. They lost in lower federal courts. Their appeal was Horner v. Kentucky High School Athletic Association (Case No. 99-2023).

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