Seattle School District Case: Discussion of the Supreme Court’s Majority Ruling

On June 28, the Supreme Court, in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District, Docket number 05-908 (6/28/07), ruled the use of race for the purpose of determining school assignment, as done in the Seattle School District (SSD) and in the Jefferson County (Kentucky) Public Schools (JCPS) violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

Seattle School District

SSD operates 10 public high schools. Four of them (Ballard, Nathan Hale, Ingraham, and Roosevelt) are in predominately White north Seattle, Five of them (Rainier Beach, Cleveland, West Seattle, Chief Sealth, and Franklin) are in south Seattle (where persons of various races live). There in one high school in what is generally considered central Seattle (Garfield).

In Seattle, the plan (only in effect for 1999-2002) involved public high school assignment:

The plan allows incoming ninth graders to choose from among any of the district’s high schools, ranking however many schools they wish in order of preference.

Some schools are more popular than others. If too many students list the same school as their first choice, the district employs a series of “tiebreakers” to determine who will fill the open slots at the oversubscribed school. The first tiebreaker selects for admission students who have a sibling currently enrolled in the chosen school. The next tiebreaker depends upon the racial composition of the particular school and the race of the individual student. In the district’s public schools approximately 41 percent of enrolled students are white; the remaining 59 percent, comprising all other racial groups, are classified by Seattle for assignment purposes as nonwhite. If an oversubscribed school is not within 10 percentage points of the district’s overall white/nonwhite racial balance, it is what the district calls “integration positive,” and the district employs a tiebreaker that selects for assignment students whose race “will serve to bring the school into balance.” If it is still necessary to select students for the school after using the racial tiebreaker, the next tiebreaker is the geographic proximity of the school to the student’s residence.

A parent of a ninth grade student sought to enroll her son in a selective biotechnology program (to which he was accepted) at Ballard. Due to the use of a racial tiebreaker by SSD, her son was not assigned to Ballard. A lawsuit followed.

Jefferson County (Kentucky) Public Schools

Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) operates the public school system in metropolitan Louisville, Kentucky. JCPS had once been under a decree to desegregate its schools. JCPS was determined to have satisfied the decree in 2000 and the federal district court dissolved the decree.

After the court dissolved the decree, JCPS adopted a voluntary student assignment plan for its elementary schools:

At the elementary school level, based on his or her address, each student is designated a “resides” school to which students within a specific geographic area are assigned; elementary resides schools are “grouped into clusters in order to facilitate integration.” The district assigns students to nonmagnet schools in one of two ways: Parents of kindergartners, first-graders, and students new to the district may submit an application indicating a first and second choice among the schools within their cluster; students who do not submit such an application are assigned within the cluster by the district. “Decisions to assign students to schools within each cluster are based on available space within the schools and the racial guidelines in the District’s current student assignment plan.” If a school has reached the “extremes of the racial guidelines,” a student whose race would contribute to the school’s racial imbalance will not be assigned there. After assignment, students at all grade levels are permitted to apply to transfer between nonmagnet schools in the district. Transfers may be requested for any number of reasons, and may be denied because of lack of available space or on the basis of the racial guidelines.

In JCPS, approximately 34% of the JCPS’s 97,000 students are black; most of the remaining 66% are white. The plan requires all nonmagnet schools to maintain a minimum black enrollment of 15%, and a maximum black enrollment of 50%.

A parent sought to enroll her son in Kindergarten in a school a mile from their home (their “resides school”). As her “resides school” was full, JCPS assigned her son to a school ten miles away. The parent sought to enroll her son at another JCPS school (through an “intercluster transfer”) that was one mile away from their home. JCPS denied the transfer because the transfer would have an adverse effect on the desegregation compliance of her “resides school”. A lawsuit followed.

In ruling to view the school assignment plans of SSD and JCPS as violative of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, the Supreme Court’s (Court) majority opinion (joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, and Associate Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy) reasoned that there are only two uses of race in the school assignment context that will satisfy “strict scrutiny”:

  • to correct past intentional discrimination (segregation [Author’s note: (of Blacks)]). The Court stated that once the court dissolved the desegregation decree, JCPS corrected its past discrimination. Thus, JCPS could no longer use the permissible use of race to correct past discrimination.
  • diversity in higher education (post-secondary) alone. The Court explained that SSD’s race tiebreaker violated the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment because the race tiebreaker does not factor race along with other considerations. Also, the Court noted that SSD governed elementary and secondary schools, not institutions of higher education.

The Court also held that the use of race in both SSD and JCPS had minimal effect on the assignments of students. Thus, the Court had doubts on the use of race by SSD and JCPS. The Court determined that SSD and JCPS did not show that they considered factors other than explicit racial classifications to achieve their goals.

Justice Kennedy, however, wrote a concurring opinion that recognized a governmental interest in diversity (bringing students of different backgrounds and races together). Justice Kennedy provided several examples of permissible ways to accomplish the governmental interest in diversity:

  • strategic site selection of new schools;
  • drawing attendance zones with general recognition of the demographics of neighborhoods;
  • allocating resources for special programs; recruiting students and faculty in a targeted fashion; and
  • tracking enrollments, performance, and other statistics by race.



Justice Kennedy also recognized that race still matters in today’s society.


This decision appears straightforward, but underlying it reveals a Supreme Court taking a narrow view of the effect of race in the United States (especially on Black people). In the United States, race, in general, has not been negatively used against all races, but specifically against those not in the White majority (particularly Blacks). Portions of the plurality opinion (parts of the opinion Kennedy did not join), parts of Justice Kennedy’s concurrence, and Justice Thomas’s concurring opinion, I believe led to the dissenting opinion (to be covered in a separate post).

The Court does not give consideration to the issue of societal power in its view on race. I believe this distorts the court’s decisions on racial issues. I will be covering this issue along with others in several posts. Keep the following census figures in mind.

United States (population: 281,421,906 (2000 Census))


Percentage of population








Native American







Seattle, Washington (population: 563, 374 (2000 Census))


Percentage of population








Native American







Louisville, Kentucky (population: 256,231 (2000 Census))


Percentage of population








Native American







2 thoughts on “Seattle School District Case: Discussion of the Supreme Court’s Majority Ruling

  1. Solid post, DC Observer. So far my impression about the decision has been that the Court is acting mostly to resolve who decides on desegregation plans: parents, the school district, or the courts and comes down resoundingly on the side of the courts, preserving judicial power.

    A question that’s puzzled me on this subject is who assigns the racial classification? The country is very, very different today than it was 50 years ago when a far higher percentage of our citizens were, actually, members of one race or another. You need only go to places like Hawaii, California, or, actually, nearly any big city to see that.


  2. Thanks. The Seattle case covered a lot of issues, so it is definitely a cure for writer’s block.
    As for your question, the Congress has the responsibility of defining race. Click here for an article for your consideration.


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