Friday, November 1, 2013
Alexandra Muolo’s article, Not So Black and White: The Third Circuit Upholds Race-Conscious Redistricting in Doe ex rel. Doe v. Lower Merion School District, 58 Vill. L. Rev. 797 (2013), is now available on westlaw. Doe v. Lower Merion flew under the radar of most until the last minute. The case involved a school district with just two high schools and a minority population of around ten percent. The new student assignment plan split that minority community between the two high schools. Interestingly, the challenge to the race conscious redistricting came not from the white community but from the minority community.
In an analytically complex and extremely important decision, the Third Circuit held that Justice Kennedy’s concurring opinion from Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle was the controlling opinion and, thus, race conscious plans that do not rely on individual race classifications to assign students are not subject to strict scrutiny. Within a few days of the decision, the Departments of Justice and Education issued policy guidance reaching the same conclusions themselves. In short, Doe v. Lower Merion is the most important post-Parents Involved decision available.
Muolo’s article offers an in-depth examination of this case, pointing out those key aspects of the redistricting process that made it constitutional. Muolo concludes on a practical note:
When school districts are faced with Equal Protection challenges, the first step of the court will be to determine the appropriate level of scrutiny. While race-conscious integration policies only demand rational basis review, the policies still must be rationally related to a legitimate state interest. Though there are several approaches that school districts can take to avoid constitutional challenge, Doe provides a practical example. By explicitly listing race-neutral grounds for redistricting--the Non-Negotiables and community values--Lower Merion School District was able to implement a race-conscious policy that was rationally related to the legitimate purposes outlined by the Board of Directors. In the case of student redistricting policies, therefore, practitioners must advise school districts to document the legitimate, race-neutral interests for redistricting. As such, the developers of the redistricting plan may also consider racial impact, which will foster integration.