Laws of the land, and Scalia’s legacy remembered

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Supporters of affirmative action rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, April 1, 2003. The Supreme Court will hear a case about affirmative action this year. (Richard Lee / MCT Campus)

Antonin Scalia, associate justice of the Supreme Court for 30 years, was reviled by some liberals and lauded by conservatives since he was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. Often at odds with the progressive tides of the U.S., Scalia’s fiery conservatism, dissenting opinions and off-the-cuff comments served to uphold those feelings.

Scalia died Saturday in Texas of a heart attack, leaving a legacy of conservatism and occasional, controversial statements. The most recent of these statements, about black students attending “lesser” schools where they might do better on slower tracks, places his legacy and the current Supreme Court calendar of cases, as well as the history of decisions and the future together for review as President Obama considers nominees.

“The recent Supreme Court issues we care about  — Citizens United, Roe v. Wade, Obergefell v. Hodges, King v. Burwell — have all lost their most vehement opponent. This should raise questions about how we, as millennials, should push the boundary further on important cases,” Tom Rietz, a member of the DePaul Democrats said. “I believe the impact is going to be hard to grasp. For all we know, Obama’s appointment could be delayed for 12 months, leaving us a 50/50 chance as to whom might fill that seat, as well as the soon to come seats.”

As the Supreme Court begins to hear cases about abortion and affirmative action — the precedents of which roiled the country for a time shortly after the announcement of the decisions — Scalia’s presence will likely be missed in the court and by conservatives. Without him, the court is balanced, four left-leaning judges and four typically right-leaning judges. His legacy in the chamber — constructed by comments, dissent and his personality — sets him apart from some of the ideals of the current generation and puts the president in a unique situation, one not seen since 2010 when Justice Elena Kagan was appointed.

Scalia has already stated his position on one of the first cases heard by the court this year on affirmative action. Coined in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, the idea when implemented is supposed to redress inequality typically in education and employment. Since its inception, programs under the umbrella of affirmative action have been scrutinized by theorists and students who may or may not benefit from it.

“I am a bit torn over the issue. I do think it is a good attempt and effort towards helping minority families who are disadvantaged compared to students who come from white families,” Marco Marquez, a DePaul junior, said. “It sheds light on an issue that needs solving, but I do not think affirmative action is the solution.”

The plaintiff in the case the Supreme Court will hear argues something similar. In Texas, high school seniors who graduate in the top 10 percent at their school are automatically admitted into the state school of their choice under an affirmative action plan called Top Ten Program. In Fisher v. University of Texas, Abigail Fisher, a white student, is suing the University of Texas, UT, on the grounds of racial discrimination because the university chose minority students over her.

The case comes at a time when race and race relations on campus and in cities are frequently discussed. Those who support affirmative action worry that the court will issue a ruling that curtails minority students’ opportunities to achieve a higher education. After an initial ban on affirmative action in 1997, Texas’ achievement gap for Hispanic students went from 26 points in 1997 to 21 in 2005 when affirmative action programs were reinstated. For black students, that gap went from 11 to eight points respectively. Eight states have completely banned affirmative action plans, including California, Arizona, Florida and Washington.

The case has already divided judges, who heard the case for the first time in 2012 and sent it back to lower courts, which ruled in favor of UT. Chief Justice John Roberts and Scalia are reported to have been very critical of arguments made by the lawyer representing UT. Affirmative action plans and programs are used to help minority students more often than not, something that “ignores the realities of why minority students are at a disadvantage and instead tries to make everything better by just putting us in better colleges and universities not based on our merit, but based on our skin color and demographic,” Marquez said.

Marquez raises a valid issue — attainment and disadvantages in minority communities. Americans generally support affirmative action on campuses, according to a Pew Research poll and report that showed that 63 percent think that affirmative action programs are a good thing. Among the demographics, 55 percent of whites believe equity plans are a good idea, compared to 36 percent who don’t. For African-Americans, who are often the beneficiaries of these programs, 84 percent support while 8 percent do not.

A precedent for affirmative action was set in the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld an affirmative action plan at the University of Michigan law school, but suggested an end date in 25 years.

When talking about the case, as well as affirmative action last year, Scalia was blunt.

“There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas, where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well,” he said.

Though issues of quotas and college readiness come into play when affirmative action programs are mentioned, some students feel that they are better than nothing at all in trying to help balance the number of minorities on campuses nationally.

“Minorities deserve to be in school regardless of their status. They’re people and they deserve to be educated. For minorities, it’s one of the biggest advantages to let them into a university,” Sara Alzadjali, a senior international studies major from Qatar said. “At least with these programs, they’ll have the ability to possibly get out of that cycle.”

Marquez believes Scalia’s statement is painting with a broad brush, but he doesn’t believe that affirmative action will help alleviate the disadvantages. Affirmative action does not address systemic issues that plague minorities, nor does it always create equal outcomes which is unfair, Marquez said, to minorities who may benefit.

The real way to address equality, Marquez and Alzadjali said, would be to redress the education system.

“What we should do is make sure everyone receives good quality elementary, middle and high schooling, so that we can be accepted into good universities based on our work effort and merit, not because of the color of our skin,” Marquez said. “What affirmative action is doing is just recognizing that minorities have received lower quality education from first through twelfth grade, but giving them access to higher ranked universities anyway, which isn’t fair to anyone including us minorities.”

The outcome of the case, since it is a white woman arguing racial discrimination, will be interesting and perhaps even more so with Scalia’s absence. Obama is whittling down a short list of candidates and Jack McNeil, another member of the DePaul Democrats, believes the president will have to be “bold, pick the most qualified, and be ready for the biggest political fight since the passage of the Affordable Care Act.”

Cases like those the court is currently hearing will continue to shape the country and its future, bringing questions of state’s rights and constitutionality under a larger microscope regardless of the outcome.