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Supreme Court Rules on Race and Schools

U.S. Supreme Court Justices.
Mark Wilson
/
Getty Images
U.S. Supreme Court Justices.

The Supreme Court issued a series of far-reaching split decisions Thursday, limiting the use of race to assign public school enrollment, blocking the execution of a mentally ill inmate and freeing manufacturers and retailers to set price floors for products.

The decision in cases affecting schools originated in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle could imperil similar plans in hundreds of districts nationwide, and it leaves public school systems with a limited arsenal to maintain racial diversity.

The 5-4 decision, with Chief Justice John Roberts announcing the court's judgment, saw Justice Stephen Breyer writing a dissent that was joined by the court's other three liberals.

"The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race," Roberts said.

Yet Justice Anthony Kennedy would not go as far as the other four conservative justices, saying in a concurring opinion that race may be a component of school plans designed to achieve diversity.

To the extent that Roberts' opinion could be interpreted to foreclose the use of race in any circumstance, Kennedy said, "I disagree with that reasoning."

"A district may consider it a compelling interest to achieve a diverse student population," Kennedy said. "Race may be one component of that diversity."

He agreed with Roberts that the plans in Louisville and Seattle violated constitutional guarantees of equal protection.

Justice Stephen Breyer, in a dissent joined by the other liberals on the court, said Roberts' opinion undermined the promise of integrated schools that the court laid out 53 years ago in its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

"To invalidate the plans under review is to threaten the promise of Brown," Breyer said.

In a separate ruling, the court blocked the execution of a Texas killer whose lawyers argued that he should not be put to death because he is mentally ill. Scott Louis Panetti shot his in-laws to death 15 years ago in front of his wife and young daughter.

Panetti knows what he did, but believes that he is on death row because he preaches the word of God, his lawyers say.

The convicted murderer says that he suffers from a severe documented illness that is the source of gross delusions. "This argument, we hold, should have been considered," said Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion.

Panetti's lawyers wanted the court to determine that people who cannot understand the connection between their crime and punishment because of mental illness may not be executed.

The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which bars "cruel and unusual punishment" also prohibits "the execution of a person who is so lacking in rational understanding that he cannot comprehend that he is being put to death because of the crime he was convicted of committing," they said in court papers.

In dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas said that Panetti had petitioned the federal courts twice in his case, but that the law allows only one petition.

"The court bends over backwards to allow Panetti" to bring his current claim, despite no evidence that his condition has worsened, or even changed, since 1995, Thomas wrote.

The justices also abandoned a 96-year-old ban on manufacturers and retailers setting price floors for products.

In another 5-4 decision, the court said that agreements on minimum prices are legal if they promote competition.

The ruling means that accusations of minimum pricing pacts will be evaluated case by case.

The court declared in 1911 that minimum pricing agreements violate federal antitrust law.

Supporters said that allowing minimum price floors would hurt upstart discounters and Internet resellers seeking to offer new, cheaper and less expensive ways to distribute products.

The principle that past decisions should be left alone "does not compel our continued adherence" in this instance, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote.

From The Associated Press

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