Justice Kennedy Reads Angry Bear! Yup. There’s No Other Plausible Explanation for His Affirmative Action Opinion Today.
A longer-than-planned post on today’s Supreme Court opinion on state-college-admissions affirmative action programs. (I’m up in Michigan’s Thumb region, sans cable and regular web service, and using my phone as a Wi Fi hotspot via the PdaNet app. I can attest that PdaNet is awesome.) Here it is:
The headline on Politico reads, “SCOTUS passes on big affirmative action decision.” That headline does not really sum up the opinion,* but I’m not surprised at the ruling—either its result or that it took an unusually long time for the issuance of the opinion; the case was argued in the first week of the Court’s term in early October. It’s a (very) safe bet that neither the result nor the delay in deciding the case was the result that the Fab Five had planned on when they agreed to hear the case and when the case was argued there.
But, well, stuff happens. And, first things first. And first—and foremost—for these folks, I believe, is the gutting of two key, interdependent sections, Sections 4 and 5**, of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), because that is the way to help Republicans in national elections. And the stuff that happened in this instance was the oral argument at the Court back in March (I think) in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, the case that the 5-4 crowd has planned to use as its “vehicle”—a military tank—to gut that section of the VRA.
As I wrote in AB back then, comments that Kennedy made during the argument would, if adopted by him (he will be the author of the opinion in Shelby County; bet on it, quickly, tonight, before the opinion is released tomorrow!) would inescapably conflict, in two respects, with the ruling that Kennedy planned to write in Fisher. And, yes, although absolutely everyone but me said Roberts would write the opinion in Fisher, Kennedy was the author of the Fisher opinion. (Okay, one of his law clerks was, but without attribution, of course.)
During the argument in Shelby County, Kennedy made two things clear: First, that states are people, too (just like corporations!), and therefore are protected by the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. Funny, but who knew that the Fourteenth Amendment, whose express and sole historic purpose was to protect individuals (i.e., people) from denial of due process of law and the equal protection of the law by states. Violation of constitutional rights by states, not by the federal government against states, which heretofore had no constitutional due process or equal protection rights. Originalism and textualism only matter sometimes.
Second—and this is, I think, as I said in my post last spring, the real key to the conflict between what these five wanted to do in Fisher and what they want to, and almost certainly will, do in Shelby County—is that Kennedy and Scalia think that now that African Americans have real political power, they aren’t entitled to special protections. Hey, Obama won, didn’t he?! They can just use their political power to ensure that there are no improper barriers to voting and to having their vote not be improperly and deliberately diluted into meaninglessness in federal, state and local legislative elections. Hey, Obama won, didn’t he?!
Which, as I said in my earlier post, raises the obvious question in Fisher of why the white UT applicants can’t just use their political power to have the legislature change the college-admissions statute. Unless, of course, the parents of white upper-middle-class high school students (which is what plaintiff Abigail Fisher was) have less political power in Texas than African Americans do.
Kennedy suggested during the Shelby County argument that states and localities could honor the fact of their history of racial discrimination by, say, erecting a statue of a pre-civil-rights-era black citizen who was known to have been improperly denied access to the polls. I suggested in my AB post that that could work as the solution in Fisher, too: a statue of Abigail Fisher, along with an explanatory metal placard, in the UT’s quad.
I said at the time that I thought it was poetic justice that Fisher and Shelby County were being decided in the same Court term. The poetry, if not the justice, will become apparent, I’m pretty darn sure, when the opinion in Shelby County is released. Probably tomorrow, probably along with the two same-sex-marriage opinions, probably to be drowned in news coverage by the tsunami of reportage and commentary on the latter cases.
Will I be humbly eating some of these words tomorrow? We’ll see. I mean, you never know. Maybe Kennedy doesn’t read Angry Bear, after all.
UPDATE: SCOTUSblog’s Lyle Denniston just posted an indepth summary and analysis of Fisher, here.
*Originally, this sentence read, “That about sums it up, and I’m not surprised, either at the result or that it took an unusually long time for the issuance of the opinion; the case was argued in the first week of the Court’s term in early October.” I have not yet read the opinion (and probably won’t do so today), and was relying on the very early reports about it. But I’ve amended that sentence in light of Lyle Denniston’s detailed article. The bottom line, I think, is that the likely substance of the impending 5-4 opinion in Shelby County saved affirmative action, for now, to the extent that Fisher did save affirmative action.
SECOND UPDATE: Here’s NYT Supreme Court correspondent Adam Liptak’s take on Fisher. He points out that the opinion is brief. Just think of all that time these folks wasted in writing the original, pre-Shelby-County-argument, drafts of the opinion, the concurrences and dissents. Time that the justices could have used instead to give a few more speeches at law schools and nonprofit organizations during their many, many, many fall, winter and spring breaks, some of them several weeks’ duration. Their part-time job is exhausting, I realize, and they could have used the additional diversion (and speaking fees and junkets). Oh, well. Maybe next year, when there’s another affirmative action case on the Court’s docket.
THIRD UPDATE: **Originally, that sentence said that one key section, Section 5, of the VRA was at issue, and did not mention Section 4. The Court issued its 5-4 opinion, written by Roberts, a few minutes ago, and SCOTUSblog says the opinion strikes down Section 4 but says the court makes no ruling on Section 5, and that Ginsburg says in her dissent that the striking down of Section 4 renders Section 5 dormant. Section 5 is the section that requires certain states, counties and localities to first “pre-clearance” from a federal court or from the Justice Dept. before altering voting districts or other access-to-the-polls and weight-of-a-vote matters. Section 4 is the section that creates the formula for determining which states, counties and localities are subject to the Section 5 pre-clearance requirement.
The effect of striking down Section 4 is to nullify Section 5 until Congress enacts a new formula to replace the now-void Section 4 one. Or until hell freezes over. Whichever comes first.