Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Roberts Court Votes on Brown

Norm Ornstein, writing in The Atlantic, argues that had it been the Roberts Court sitting in 1954
[t]he decision would have been 5-4 the other way, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing for the majority, "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race"—leaving separate but equal as the standard.
Ilys Somin cries foul. And I think Somin has the better of the argument, but it's a more interesting question than he lets on.

Somin observes, quite correctly, that the "colorblind constitution" advocated by Chief Justice Roberts and others makes easy work of the de jure racial classification at issue in Brown. But I don't think the point of the hypothetical is to transport the doctrines and particular legal and policy beliefs of the Roberts Court back to 1954. After all, these doctrines and policies derive from particular historical roots, of which Brown of course looms large. But in 1954, the "colorblind constitution" was hardly so entrenched -- its jurisprudential provenance was a solo dissent in an 1896 decision that the Court had, to that point, been extremely careful not to disturb. And the "separate but equal" doctrine that prevailed instead was, on face, perfectly egalitarian. It has "equal" right in the name!

Somin contends, though, that irrespective of this superficial equality "a Supreme Court justice who believes that the government should “stop discriminating on the basis of race” would have no trouble striking down school segregation laws, regardless of whether the separate schools were 'equal' or not. Jim Crow segregation laws were nothing if not blatantly obvious examples of discrimination on the basis of race."

But was it so "blatantly obvious" back then? Of course, in many cases there were material differences between the separate accommodations, and that is indeed an easy case. The Court had begun tackling these facial violations of "separate but equal" in cases like Sweatt v. Painter and McLaurin v. Oklahoma Board of Regents, and I have no doubt that Roberts and company would have followed those precedents. But making the jump to the colorblind constitution requires more -- it requires a theory for why formal equality isn't enough. It is notable that this debate played on Plessy, and the terms of the debate were the social meaning of racial separation. The majority adamantly ignored these social conventions:
We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff's argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.
But does anyone seriously have confidence in the Roberts Court to develop a new rule on race based on the social effects of a formally equal legal rule? This, to put it mildly, is not their standard operating procedure.

Nonetheless. maybe these cultural conventions really were so "blatantly obvious" that the Roberts Court would craft a brightline rule addressing them. This is buttressed, ironically, by the fact that in my estimation the Roberts Court's identification with a "colorblind constitution" doesn't derive from any cognizable legal foundation (originalism, textualism, etc.), but really represents a deeply-felt policy preference. And while that normally is not praiseworthy, it does mean that the conservative Justices would be more inclined to craft this rule even where it did not have a clear link to prior precedent or a prevailing legal theory.

The really interesting question, though, is how the Roberts Court would have decided Brown II (and the subsequent "remedial" jurisprudence line). Ornstein did not raise this issue, so I don't fault Somin for not responding to it. But recall the context: after Brown the District of South Carolina on remand took away from the cases the following principle:
The Constitution, in other words, does not require integration. It merely forbids discrimination. It does not forbid such segregation as occurs as the result of voluntary action. It merely forbids the use of governmental power to enforce segregation.
To the extent Brown II allowed or even required the use of affirmative race-conscious steps to integrate schools, would the Roberts Court have followed along? Or would it have endorsed the position of the District of South Carolina that the start and end of "desegregation" was erasing government statutes mandating racial separation?

To be sure, the Roberts Court today recognizes (barely) that the use of race to remedy de jure racial discrimination is constitutional. But their acceptance of this principle is much more tenuous than that of the colorblind constitution, and derives almost entirely for the legal and emotional precedential force of the Court's civil rights era desegregation jurisprudence. Starting from scratch, would they have announced a similar rule? I think not.

In short, I think Chief Justice Roberts would have signed onto Brown. But I think that's as far as he would have gone. When it comes to remedies, "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race." The judgment of the District of South Carolina on remand would be affirmed.

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