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Focus of Next Supreme Court Term Will Be Race, Columnist Predicts

Posted Jun 4, 2012 6:30 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The focus of the next Supreme Court term will likely be race, according to a journalist who used to cover the court.

In an Opinionator column for the New York Times, former Times reporter Linda Greenhouse makes her prediction. “Race is the project of the Roberts court—more than enhancing corporate welfare, more than lowering the barrier between church and state, more than redefining the boundary between state and federal authority,” she writes.

Greenhouse points to two cases with a focus on race, only one of which has been accepted by the court. That case, Fisher v. University of Texas, is a challenge to race-conscious admissions policies used by the University of Texas. The plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, was refused admission under University of Texas policies that determine the bulk of admissions by class rank, and then fill the remaining spots based on academics, personal achievement and race.

The real question, Greenhouse says, is whether the court will use the Fisher case to overturn its 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld a law school admissions policy that used race as just one factor in the admissions decision. Overturning the prior case is “what the plaintiff is seeking, and it’s hard to imagine another reason for the justices to have accepted the case," Greenhouse says.

Greenhouse also points to Shelby County v. Holder, a challenge to preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act that is on an “inexorable course to the Supreme Court.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit recently upheld the law, but a dissenter “provided a road map for the Supreme Court to cut the heart out of" the preclearance requirement, Greenhouse says.

The dissent argued there was no need to invalidate the law’s entire preclearance mandate, addressed in Section 5, Greenhouse explains. Instead, the suggestion was to strike down the formula used to determine which jurisdictions have to obtain preclearance for changes in voting procedures. “Such an approach would have great appeal to Chief Justice Roberts, who has shown a preference for an oblique approach to a radical result,” Greenhouse writes. “Of course, Congress’ predictable inability to agree on a new list of covered states would leave Section 5 in terminal abeyance. But that wouldn’t be the court’s fault, would it?”

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