The Changed Court

Three years after landmark court decision, Louisville still struggles with school desegregation

In 63 to 37 vote, the Senate confirmed U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan as the 112th justice to the Supreme Court, making her the fourth woman ever to sit on the high court.
By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 20, 2010; 6:21 AM

Since John G. Roberts Jr became chief justice five years ago, focus has been on the Supreme Court's changing makeup and shifting ideology. In the coming months, the Washington Post will examine the real-world consequences of the court's rulings in communities across the nation.

LOUISVILLE - Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. made it sound so simple that day in 2007, when he and four other members of the Supreme Court declared that this city's efforts to desegregate its schools violated the Constitution.

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

But life has been anything but simple for school officials here. They have steadfastly - or stubbornly, depending on the point of view - tried to maintain integrated classrooms despite the court's command that officials not consider race when assigning children to schools.

Consultants were hired, lawyers retained, census data scrubbed, boundaries redrawn, more buses bought, more routes proposed, new school choices offered and more lawsuits defended.

The final product, which integrates schools based on socioeconomic factors rather than on race alone, has proven to be more complex and costly than the previous system. Long bus rides and complaints from a vocal minority of parents have threatened popular support of the plan. The school board has delayed full implementation. The legislature is contemplating whether to guarantee parents a spot in their neighborhood schools.

It has been a long three years for school officials since the court for the first time took away the simplest and most efficient way to integrate classrooms: making decisions based upon a student's race. It was a landmark moment for a court that has long struggled with race-conscious decisions by government: when they are warranted, and when they have outlived their usefulness.

The ruling also marked a key moment in the emerging identity of the court headed by Roberts, who will mark his fifth anniversary as chief justice this month. It showed clearly a new majority of justices willing to move aggressively on social issues that had long divided their predecessors.

A string of 5 to 4 decisions on controversial social issues since then has mostly cheered conservatives who think the court is hewing more closely to the words of the Constitution.

That optimism among conservatives stems from President George W. Bush's ability to transform the tenor of the court with a new chief justice - Roberts, now 55 - and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., now 60, a game-changing replacement for the more moderate Sandra Day O'Connor.

Liberals sounded a call to arms, and at the end of the first full term of Roberts and Alito together, Justice Stephen G. Breyer signaled his unease with a comment that summed up the left's point of view on the new court.

"It is not often in the law that so few have so quickly changed so much," Breyer said.

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