Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1

PETITIONER: Parents Involved In Community Schools
RESPONDENT: Seattle School District No. 1 et al.
LOCATION: Seattle School District

DOCKET NO.: 05-908
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 551 US 701 (2007)
GRANTED: Jun 05, 2006
ARGUED: Dec 04, 2006
DECIDED: Jun 28, 2007

Harry J.F. Korrell - argued the cause for Petitioner
Michael F. Madden - argued the cause for Respondents
Paul D. Clement - argued the cause for Petitioner

Facts of the case

The Seattle School District allowed students to apply to any high school in the District. Since certain schools often became oversubscribed when too many students chose them as their first choice, the District used a system of tiebreakers to decide which students would be admitted to the popular schools. The second most important tiebreaker was a racial factor intended to maintain racial diversity. If the racial demographics of any school's student body deviated by more than a predetermined number of percentage points from those of Seattle's total student population (approximately 40% white and 60% non-white), the racial tiebreaker went into effect. At a particular school either whites or non-whites could be favored for admission depending on which race would bring the racial balance closer to the goal.

A non-profit group, Parents Involved in Community Schools (Parents), sued the District, arguing that the racial tiebreaker violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Washington state law. A federal District Court dismissed the suit, upholding the tiebreaker. On appeal, a three-judge panel the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed.

Under the Supreme Court's precedents on racial classification in higher education, Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, race-based classifications must be directed toward a "compelling government interest" and must be "narrowly tailored" to that interest. Applying these precedents to K-12 education, the Circuit Court found that the tiebreaker scheme was not narrowly tailored. The District then petitioned for an "en banc" ruling by a panel of 11 Ninth Circuit judges. The en banc panel came to the opposite conclusion and upheld the tiebreaker. The majority ruled that the District had a compelling interest in maintaining racial diversity. Applying a test from Grutter, the Circuit Court also ruled that the tiebreaker plan was narrowly tailored, because 1) the District did not employ quotas, 2) the District had considered race-neutral alternatives, 3) the plan caused no undue harm to races, and 4) the plan had an ending point.


1) Do the decisions in Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger apply to public high school students?

2) Is racial diversity a compelling interest that can justify the use of race in selecting students for admission to public high schools?

3) Does a school district that normally permits a student to attend the high school of her choice violate the Equal Protection Clause by denying the student admission to her chosen school because of her race in an effort to achieve a desired racial balance?

Media for Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 04, 2006 in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 28, 2007 in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

I have the announcement in case No. 05-908, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and case number 05-915 Meredith v. Jefferson County Bd. of Education.

The Parents Involved case comes to us from the Ninth Circuit and concerns the adoption and implementation by the Seattle School District where a student assignment plan that requires all students to identify themselves as either white or non-white.

Seattle then uses the racial classifications to help insure that the racial balance at certain schools falls within a predetermined range based on the racial composition of the school district as a whole.

Seattle assignment plan allows incoming ninth graders to choose from among any of the district’s high schools, ranking the schools in order of preference.

If too many students list the same school as their first choice the district employees a series of tiebreakers to determine who will fill the open slots at the oversubscribed school.

The first tiebreaker selects students who have a sibling at the school.

The second tiebreaker is based on race if the school is racially imbalanced under Seattle’s plan and that it has too many non-white students than white students will be selected for admission.

If the school has too many white students then non-white students will be selected to move the school closer to the desired racial balance.

Petitioner parents involved the group of parents whose children have been or maybe dined assignment to their chosen school in Seattle solely because of their race challenged the constitutionality of Seattle’s assignment plan under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Ninth Circuit found that Seattle’s use of racial classifications was narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest and upheld the plan.

The Meredith case comes to us from the Sixth Circuit and concerns the Jefferson County Kentucky Student assignment plan.

Jefferson County is basically metropolitan Louisville; Jefferson County classifies its students as either black or other and makes a school assignment based on among other factors the district’s racial guidelines which require all schools to maintain black enrolment of between 15 and 50%.

Petitioner Crystal Meredith enrolled her son Joshua a kindergartner in Jefferson County’s schools upon moving to the district and after he was assigned to a school far from home, she thought to transfer Joshua to a nearby elementary school.

Jefferson County denied Joshua’s transfer application even though the school he wish to attend had available space because his transfer would have had an adverse effect on his current school’s compliance with the racial guidelines.

Meredith challenged Jefferson County’s use of the racial guidelines under the Equal Protection Clause and the Sixth Circuit upheld the school districts assignment policy.

We granted certiorari in both cases and now reverse in both.

In an opinion for the Court filed with the Clerk today we find that this racial classification violates the constitution for the following reasons, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment allows government classification on the basis of race only where the classification satisfy the familiar “strict scrutiny” test that is were the racial classifications are shown by the government to be narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest.

Our prior cases evaluating the use of racial classifications in the school context have recognizes two such compelling interest.

The first is the compelling interest of remedying the effects of past intentional discrimination such as prior segregation by law.

The Seattle public schools have not argued that they may use these racial classifications because they were previously segregated by law and they have never been subject to court ordered desegregation.

The Jefferson County public schools were previously segregated by law and were subject to a desegregation decree entered in 1975 but this decree was dissolved in 2000 upon a finding that the district had “eliminated the vestiges associated with the former policy of segregation” and does had achieved what is known as unitary status.

Neither school district argues that this remedial justification provides a compelling interest for their racial classifications.

The second government interest we have recognized as compelling for purposes of strict scrutiny is the interest in diversity in higher education upheld in Grutter v. Bollinger.

The diversity interest found compelling in that case was however not racial diversity alone, the use of race in Grutter was upheld only as part of a “highly individualized holistic review.”

We emphasize that the use of race was constitutional because it was part of a broader assessment of diversity and not simply an effort to achieve racial balance that the court said in Grutter would be “patently unconstitutional.”

In these cases in contrast to Grutter race is not considered as part of a broader effort to achieve “exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas and viewpoints.”

Race for some students is determinative standing alone.

The court in Grutter defined a specific type of broad-based diversity and emphasized the unique context of higher education in upholding the racial classifications.

Neither of these characteristics exists in these cases and the compelling interest in student body diversity in higher education recognized in Grutter cannot support the districts use of race.

When it comes to the narrow tailoring requirement we conclude that the districts have not met their burden of showing that these racial classifications are necessary to achieve their stated ends.