Race-Based School Policy Struck Down
Diversity Not 'Compelling' Reason, U.S. Appeals Court Rules
By Pamela Ferdinand
The ruling marked the first time a federal appeals court has addressed the constitutionality of race-preference policies in a public high school. It was likely to be scrutinized by public school districts across the nation -- particularly in Arlington County, where a federal court ruled against a similar admissions policy in two public schools last summer and the school system has appealed.
The court here ordered the prestigious Boston Latin School to immediately admit Sarah Wessmann, a white student who claimed she was denied admission in favor of less-qualified minority students under an illegal quota system. In its 2 to 1 ruling, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals maintained that diversity is not a legally defensible reason for admitting students based partly on race, even in a city torn apart decades ago by violent desegregation protests.
The three-judge panel also noted that federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have not held that diversity in and of itself provides a "compelling government interest" -- the legal standard for taking factors such as race into consideration.
"We do not question the School Committee's good intentions. . . . Here, however, the potential for harmful consequences prevents us from succumbing to good intentions," the court ruled. "The policy is, at bottom, a mechanism for racial balancing -- and placing our imprimatur on racial balancing risks setting a precedent that is both dangerous to our democratic ideals and almost always constitutionally forbidden."
Legal observers predicted it is only a matter of time before the constitutionality of such policies is settled by the nation's highest court. Moreover, in the wake of the Boston ruling, they warned, public school officials who use race-preference policies could begin to be held liable for damages if it is shown they knowingly violated a clear legal standard.
"This decision makes it much more difficult to engage in race preferences," said Terence Pell, senior counsel for the Center for Individual Rights in Washington, D.C. "It says racial preferences are almost always illegal, no matter what the context."
Under Boston Latin School's admission policy, half the students are selected solely on entrance scores and grades. Admission for the rest is weighted by race. This year, the school has a student body that is 51 percent white, 21 percent Asian, 19 percent black and 9 percent Hispanic, according to school statistics.
Michael C. McLaughlin, the lawyer who represented Wessmann, previously sued the committee on behalf of his own daughter, Julia. She was admitted to Boston Latin when the city agreed to change a former policy setting aside 35 percent of its seats for minority students and the case was dismissed. Wessmann challenged the revised policy.
The Boston School Committee has not decided whether to appeal today's decision.
"We have to do what the court says," said Superintendent Thomas Payzant. "It saddens me that it will be that much more difficult to meet the commitment to diversity at a time when it is crucial for our young people to understand what diversity is all about from real, rather than vicarious experience."
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