The Supreme Court on Thursday rejected integration plans in two major public school districts but left the door open for using race to assign students in limited circumstances.
The decision in cases affecting schools in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle could imperil similar plans in hundreds of districts nationwide, and it further restricts how public school systems may attain racial diversity.
The court split, 5-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts announcing the court's judgment. The court's four liberal justices dissented.
In his ruling, Roberts took aim at the way Seattle assigns students to schools after classifying them as "white" or "non white" and the way Louisville labels students as "black" or "other," reports CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews .
"The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race," Roberts said.
Yet Justice Anthony Kennedy would not go as far as the other four conservative justices, saying in a concurring opinion that race may be a component of school plans designed to achieve diversity.
To the extent that Roberts' opinion could be interpreted to foreclose the use of race in any circumstance, Kennedy said, "I disagree with that reasoning."
"A district may consider it a compelling interest to achieve a diverse student population," Kennedy said. "Race may be one component of that diversity."
He agreed with Roberts that the plans in Louisville and Seattle violated constitutional guarantees of equal protection.
"These plans in these districts are finished, but Justice Kennedy may have saved slightly different plans in other school districts around the country because in his concurring opinion he says you can't always and forever rule out the use of race as a factor," CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen says.
"This is not the crushing blow to affirmative action in public schools that it initially appears to be," Cohen says.
Justice Stephen Breyer, in a dissent joined by the other liberals on the court, said Roberts' opinion undermined the promise of integrated schools that the court laid out 53 years ago in its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
"To invalidate the plans under review is to threaten the promise of Brown," Breyer said.
While Roberts said the court was being faithful to the Brown decision, Justice John Paul Stevens in a separate dissent called the chief justice's reliance on Brown to rule against integration "a cruel irony."
Justice Clarence Thomas, the court's only black member, wrote a separate opinion endorsing the ruling and taking issue with the dissenters' view of the Brown case.
"What was wrong in 1954 cannot be right today," Thomas said. "The plans before us base school assignment decisions on students' race. Because 'our Constitution is colorblind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens,' such race-based decision making is unconstitutional."
The two school systems in Thursday's decisions employ slightly different methods of taking students' race into account when determining which school they will attend.
Federal appeals courts had upheld both plans after some parents sued. The Bush administration took the parents' side, arguing that racial diversity is a noble goal but can be sought only through race-neutral means.
The Louisville case grew out of complaints from several parents whose children were not allowed to attend the schools of their choice. Crystal Meredith, a white, single mother, sued after the school system turned down a request to transfer her 5-year-old son Joshua Ryan McDonald, to a school closer to home.
Louisville's schools spent 25 years under a court order to eliminate the effects of state-sponsored segregation. After a federal judge freed the Jefferson County, Ky., school board, which encompasses Louisville, from his supervision, the board decided to keep much of the court-ordered plan in place to prevent schools from re-segregating.
The lawyer for the Louisville system called the plan a success story that enjoys broad community support, including among parents of white and black students.
Attorney Teddy Gordon, who argued that the Louisville system's plan was discriminatory, said, "Clearly, we need better race-neutral alternatives. Instead of spending zillions of dollars around the country to place a black child next to a white child, let's reduce class size. All the schools are equal. We will no longer accept that an African-American majority within a school is unacceptable."
Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson said he was disappointed with the ruling because Louisville's system had provided "a quality education for all students and broken down racial barriers" for 30 years.
He said he was confident school leaders could produce effective new guidelines.
The Seattle school district said it used race as one among many factors, relied on it only in some instances and then only at the end of a lengthy process in allocating students among the city's high schools. Seattle suspended its program after parents sued.
The opinion was the first on the issue since 2003, when a 5-4 ruling upheld the limited consideration of race in college admissions to attain a diverse student body. Since then, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who approved of the limited use of race, retired. Her replacement, Justice Samuel Alito was in the majority that struck down the school system plans in Kentucky and Washington.
The cases are Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, 05-908, and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education, 05-915.
Decisions so far in cases on abortion, discrimination and the rights of defendants have put the court on a more conservative footing with the addition of President Bush's two appointees, Roberts and Alito.
The court last tackled the topic of race and education in 2003, upholding the consideration of race in admissions to the University of Michigan law school.
Since then, however, the author of that opinion, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, has retired. Alito took her place.
When the court heard challenges to school assignment plans in Louisville and Seattle in December, a majority of the justices appeared inclined to strike down one or both plans.
Roberts was among the justices critical of taking race into account. He commented that the legacy of the court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 outlawing state-sponsored segregated schools should be race-blind programs.
"The purpose of the Equal Protection Clause is to ensure that people are treated as individuals rather than based on the color of their skin," Roberts said in December.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of four liberal justices, put the matter differently when she addressed a conference of judges and lawyers recently in Bolton Landing, N.Y. She suggested that the purpose of the plans is to keep schools from looking as they did before the Brown ruling and subsequent decisions requiring desegregation.
In remarks aired by the C-SPAN cable network, Ginsburg said the justices "will determine whether the Equal Protection Clause prohibits race-conscious efforts by school districts to prevent resegregation."
Also Thursday, the court blocked the execution of a Texas killer whose lawyers argued he should not be put to death because he is mentally ill. Scott Louis Panetti shot his in-laws to death 15 years ago in front of his wife and young daughter.
Panetti knows what he did, but believes that he is on death row because he preaches the word of God, his lawyers say. The court voted 5-4 to stop his execution.
The court also abandoned a 96-year-old ban on manufacturers and retailers setting price floors for products. In a 5-4 decision, the court said that agreements on minimum prices are legal if they promote competition.
The ruling means that accusations of minimum pricing pacts will be evaluated case by case.
Thursday's session will likely be the justices' last until October.