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High Court passes on Prop. 209

Nov. 5, 1997

Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Services

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court declined Monday to review California's Proposition 209, passing up a chance to decide whether voters can ban affirmative action.

The justices, without comment, let stand the voter initiative, which prohibits California government programs based on 'race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.'

The court's decision was issued one day before Houston voted on a similar proposal. Supporters of Proposition 209 hope, and opponents fear, a nationwide series of copycat referenda, especially in light of the Supreme Court's inaction.

'It's a clear signal that all programs to end public discrimination are constitutional,' said Michael Carvin, attorney for a Proposition 209 sponsors' group, Californians Against Discrimination and Preferences. 'This should inspire further efforts to eliminate racial preferences from American life.'

Proposition 209 opponents, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, said there is no way to tell why the court rejects any case.

Mark Rosenbaum of the ACLU's Southern California office said the justices may be waiting for a case in which a specific affirmative action program is terminated.

'This is not the end game for 209,' Rosenbaum said, adding that it threatens a variety of education and business outreach programs.

'I don't think there will be any shortage of opportunities to re-litigate this case.'

The Supreme Court has already agreed to decide one racially charged case this term. It concerns the Piscataway, N.J., school district, which retained a black teacher over a white one in order to maintain racial diversity in a high school business department.

Some legal analysts have said Piscataway may yield a narrow ruling because the case has unusual facts, including the virtually identical qualifications of the two teachers in question.

Proposition 209, on the other hand, strikes at the nerve center of the national debate over race relations, equal opportunity and affirmative action. A year ago, California voters approved Proposition 209 with a 54 percent majority.In a legal brief for the Supreme Court, the ACLU pointed out the racial and gender divisions in the voting, as determined by Election Day polling. While 63 percent of white voters supported Proposition 209, it was opposed by 74 percent of black voters, 76 percent of Latinos and 61 percent of Asian-Americans.Men backed the measure with 61 percent of the vote, while only 48 percent of women voted for it.A federal judge in San Francisco had blocked implementation of Proposition 209 but was overruled by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.The ACLU and other opponents argued that the referendum stripped local governments of the right to remedy the effects of racial discrimination as they saw fit.Critics said that, in the wake of Proposition 209, the entering class of Boalt Law School at the University of California has only one African-American student, while minority applications to state medical schools are down 17 percent.`'Proposition 209 removes the tools of government necessary to break down discrimination,'' Mr. Rosenbaum said.Supporters of Proposition 209 said racial preferences will not end racism and that they violate the Constitution's guarantee of ``the equal protection of the laws.''California Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, was a defendant in the suit. He issued a statement saying: ``We must all be prepared to work together in a harmonious society where every person is judged as an individual, not as a stereotyped component of a particular racial or ethnic group.''Proposition 209 is part of the political debate over Bill Lann Lee, who is President Clinton's nominee for assistant attorney general in charge of civil rights. Senate Republicans have attacked Mr. Lee's opposition to the measure.White House spokesman Mike McCurry had few comments about the Supreme Court's actions, but said Mr. Clinton supports the concept of affirmative action.``We need to keep that as a corrective tool to protect Americans who have suffered injustice, discrimination and even the residue of racism,'' Mr. McCurry said.The arguments are echoing in Houston, where voters will decide Tuesday whether to approve an anti-affirmative action proposal called Proposition A.Houston Mayor Bob Lanier has campaigned energetically against Proposition A. He said the city's ``good faith'' contract goals of 20 percent for women- and minority-owned businesses help sell the city to an international market. In a recent speech, he complained that forces in California are pushing the Houston effort.``What they hope to have is a Houston scalp in their belt as they proceed to preach their dogma nationwide,'' Mr. Lanier said.Edward Blum, a Houston investment broker and co-chair of the Houston Civil Rights Initiative, said Proposition 209 served only as inspiration.``I think that energized many of us across the country who want to see government out of the racial classification and preference business,'' Mr. Blum said.Research by the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Council said only three states have similar initiatives in the works for November 1998: Washington, Florida, and Colorado. Other states discussing the idea, with varying levels of seriousness, include Ohio, Arizona, Michigan, Oregon, Massachusetts, Delaware and Illinois.In addition, the House Judiciary Committee is working on legislation similar to Proposition 209. (c) Tribune Media Services, 1997. All rights reserved. Wired to Run | Story Swap |Entertainment and Features | Sports | ----

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