SEATTLE — In a ruling that gives public high schools the power to maintain racially balanced student bodies, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday upheld the Seattle School District's use of race as a factor in admissions.
The court's 7-4 vote overturned a 2-1 decision a 9th Circuit panel made in 2002.
"We conclude that the district has a compelling interest in securing the educational and social benefits of racial diversity and in ameliorating racial isolation or concentration in its high schools," Judge Raymond Fisher wrote for the majority.
The parents group that filed the suit in 2000 said it planned to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"It was wrong," attorney Harry Korrell said, referring to the latest ruling. Korrell represents the group of about 60 who call themselves Parents Involved in Community Schools.
Seattle schools Supt. Raj Manhas said he was pleased by the decision, but would not say whether the district would immediately reinstate the racial tiebreaker. The policy has been suspended for the last three years as the case wound its way through state and federal courts.
"We will review the court's opinion further," Manhas said. "I know that [the school board] will carefully consider the court's decision as future policies are crafted."
The ruling mirrors a decision earlier this year by another federal appellate court. In June, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a similar racial policy used by the school district in Lynn, Mass.
Advocates say the appellate decisions add momentum to voluntary desegregation efforts by school districts across the country. The plaintiffs in the Lynn case have already petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for review.
The high court has never ruled on voluntary diversity plans used by many high schools. The closest the court came was two years ago, when it ruled that the University of Michigan could consider the race of applicants -- as long as race was not the overriding factor.
In Seattle, students can apply to any high school. When a school attracts more applicants than it has room, the district uses three tiebreakers to decide who gets in. Admitted first are students who have a sibling at the school. Next are students who help bring the school in line with the district's overall racial balance: 60% minority and 40% white. The remaining spots are given to applicants according to the proximity of their homes to the school.
Kathleen Brose, one of the parents who sued, said the racial tiebreaker kept her oldest daughter from being admitted to Ballard High School, which was closest to their home. The Broses are white. The daughter wound up commuting 30 minutes to another high school.
Korrell warned that the ruling could open the door to all kinds of "racial balancing" policies that people don't foresee.
"Are we going to see racial balancing on football teams, choirs and chess clubs?" he asked. "If there are too many whites or too many Asians or too many blacks in the chess club, are we going to force the club to racially balance its membership?"
David Engle, who resigned as principal of Ballard High School in protest of the appellate court's previous decision, called the new ruling "great news."
"I wasn't sure, given today's political climate, how the court would rule," said Engle, now a principal at a high school in Bellingham, north of Seattle. "I was living in suspense. It's affirming to me the court decided that integration is a compelling educational interest."