January 09, 2009

Focus on Obama as Supremes Take Race Cases

The U.S. Supreme Court announced today that it will review a lawsuit by New Haven firefighters – one Hispanic and 17 whites – denied exam-based promotions under pressure from the city’s African-American leaders. When we reported on this important racial preferences case last month, we observed that
“In addition to its legal importance, this case [Ricci v. DeStefano] stands out because of its implications for both President-elect Obama and Sonia Sotomayor, one of his most likely Supreme Court picks.”
Noting that “Obama’s election to the nation’s highest office has undercut the ‘uneven playing field’ rationale for racial preferences,” we concluded that
“the American people deserve to know where Obama stands on this case … After all, it is Obama’s judicial and political appointees who will determine whether injustices of the kind seen in New Haven continue and, most importantly for Obama, whether the resentment of white and Asian Americans [that he has acknowledged] builds in the four years before the next presidential election.”
Equally important is the Supreme Court decision today to hear a challenge to the Voting Rights Act’s requirement that eight states – primarily in the South – and parts of another eight states get permission from the feds before modifying their election procedures. The Bush Administration defended the requirement, and the Obama Administration will undoubtedly do the same, but the arguments it makes will tell us a lot about whether Obama really believes that his election will help the nation move beyond race.

The Act’s requirement is premised on the assumption that certain states and localities are more likely to violate the voting rights of minorities. But this 40-plus year old assumption is called into question more than ever by the fact that seven of the 16 states involved voted for Obama in November.

The Washington Post notes that the case, Austin Municipal Utility District v. Mukasey,
“will go before a court that has become increasingly wary of race-based remedies. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has been among the most skeptical, writing in a 2006 legislative redistricting case that ‘It is a sordid business, this divvying us up by race.’”
With Barack Obama’s approach to preferences still unknown, and both houses of Congress controlled by majorities that are firmly committed to racial preferences, the judiciary branch stands as the only reliable check on the sordid business of divvying up by race.

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