April 23, 2014

JAMES TARANTO: First Among Equals: An Orwellian dissent from a muddled ruling.

Justice Stephen Breyer concurred in the judgment on much narrower grounds. He was part of the Grutter majority in 2003 and still thinks racial preferences are constitutionally permissible. He ducked the question of whether the political-process doctrine applied to the substance of the Michigan amendment by saying it didn’t apply to the process. Because racial preferences were imposed by unelected university administrators, he argued, the process change isn’t a “political” one at all. It appears to be a way of evading the central questions of the case, but it does have the virtue of being relatively simple.

Then there’s the Sotomayor dissent, which begins as follows: “We are fortunate to live in a democratic society. But . . .” An empty piety, followed by an equivocation, followed by a total of 58 pages–you know this is going to be a tough slog.

The most quoted part of Sotomayor’s opinion is this: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.” This is a rejoinder to Chief Justice John Roberts’s assertion, in Parents Involved v. Seattle School Dist. No. 1 (2007), that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” (Roberts in turn rebutted Sotomayor in a separate concurrence to today’s decision, which we’re leaving out of our ranking by clarity.)

Robert’s statement was trivially true, which means that Sotomayor’s defies logic. Her argument amounts to an assertion that a ban on racial discrimination is a form of racial discrimination–that everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others. Also Orwellian is her claim that she wants “to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race.” Such an assertion is almost always disingenuous. After all, the way to speak openly and candidly is to speak openly and candidly. Declaring one’s intention to do so is at best superfluous throat clearing.

And while Sotomayor may be open, she isn’t candid. She presents a potted history of race in America in which there is a straight line from Jim Crow segregation through literacy tests to the Michigan amendment, which “involves this last chapter of discrimination”–even though it bans discrimination, and even though Sotomayor acknowledges that its substance is perfectly constitutional.

She also repeats the phrase “race matters” a lot. But then, it does. It’s how she got her job.

UPDATE: words matter.