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PARENTS INVOLVED IN COMMUNITY SCHOOLS, PETITIONER v. SEATTLE SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 1 ET AL.; CRYSTAL D. MEREDITH, CUSTODIAL PARENT AND NEXT FRIEND OF JOSHUA RYAN MCDONALD, PETITIONER v. JEFFERSON COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION ET AL.

Nos. 05-908 and 05-915

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

127 S. Ct. 2738; 168 L. Ed. 2d 508; 2007 U.S. LEXIS 8670; 75 U.S.L.W. 4577; 20 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 490

December 4, 2006, Argued

June 28, 2007, * Decided

* Together with No. 05-915, Meredith, Custodial Parent and Next Friend of McDonald v. Jefferson County Bd. of Ed et al., on certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

NOTICE: [***1] The LEXIS pagination of this document is subject to change pending release of the final published version.

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Motion denied by Meredith v. Jefferson County Bd. of Educ., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 64473 (W.D. Ky., Aug. 29, 2007)

PRIOR HISTORY: ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT.

ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT. Parents Involved in Cmty. Sch. v. Seattle Sch. Dist., No. 1, 426 F.3d 1162, 2005 U.S. App. LEXIS 22515 (9th Cir. Wash., 2005)

McFarland v. Jefferson County Pub. Schs, 416 F.3d 513, 2005 U.S. App. LEXIS 14783 (6th Cir.) (6th Cir. Ky., 2005)

DISPOSITION: Reversed and remanded.

Case in Brief ( $ )

SYLLABUS: Respondent school districts voluntarily adopted student assignment plans that rely on race to determine which schools certain children may attend. The Seattle district, which has never operated legally segregated schools or been subject to court-ordered desegregation, classified children as white or nonwhite, and [***2] used the racial classifications as a "tiebreaker" to allocate slots in particular high schools. The Jefferson County, Ky., district was subject to a desegregation decree until 2000, when the District Court dissolved the decree after finding that the district had eliminated the vestiges of prior segregation to the greatest extent practicable. In 2001, the district adopted its plan classifying students as black or "other" in order to make certain elementary school assignments and to rule on transfer requests.

Petitioners, an organization of Seattle parents (Parents Involved) and the mother of a Jefferson County student (Joshua), whose children were or could be assigned under the foregoing plans, filed these suits contending, inter alia, that allocating children to different public schools based solely on their race violates the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection guarantee. In the Seattle case, the District Court granted the school district summary judgment, finding, inter alia, that its plan survived strict scrutiny on the federal constitutional claim because it was narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest. The Ninth [***3] Circuit affirmed. In the Jefferson County case, the District Court found that the school district had asserted a compelling interest in maintaining racially diverse schools, and that its plan was, in all relevant respects, narrowly tailored to serve that interest. The Sixth Circuit affirmed.

Held: The judgments are reversed, and the cases are remanded.

No. 05-908, 426 F.3d 1162; No. 05-915, 416 F.3d 513, reversed and remanded.

THE CHIEF JUSTICE delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, III-A, and III-C, concluding:

1. The Court has jurisdiction in these cases. Seattle argues that Parents Involved lacks standing because its current members' claimed injuries are not imminent and are too speculative in that, even if the district maintains its current plan and reinstitutes the racial tiebreaker, those members will only be affected if their children seek to enroll in a high school that is oversubscribed and integration positive. This argument is unavailing; the group's members have children in all levels of the district's schools, and the complaint sought declaratory and injunctive relief on behalf of members whose [***4] elementary and middle school children may be denied admission to the high schools of their choice in the future. The fact that those children may not be denied such admission based on their race because of undersubscription or oversubscription that benefits them does not eliminate the injury claimed. The group also asserted an interest in not being forced to compete in a race-based system that might prejudice its members' children, an actionable form of injury under the Equal Protection Clause, see, e.g., Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Pena, 515 U.S. 200, 211, 115 S. Ct. 2097, 132 L. Ed. 2d 158. The fact that Seattle has ceased using the racial tiebreaker pending the outcome here is not dispositive, since the district vigorously defends its program's constitutionality, and nowhere suggests that it will not resume using race to assign students if it prevails. See Friends of Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Environmental Services (TOC), Inc., 528 U.S. 167, 189, 120 S. Ct. 693, 145 L. Ed. 2d 610. Similarly, the fact that Joshua has been granted a transfer does not eliminate the Court's jurisdiction; Jefferson County's [***5] racial guidelines apply at all grade levels and he may again be subject to race-based assignment in middle school. Pp. 9-11.

2. The school districts have not carried their heavy burden of showing that the interest they seek to achieve justifies the extreme means they have chosen -- discriminating among individual students based on race by relying upon racial classifications in making school assignments. Pp. 11-17, 25-28.

(a) Because "racial classifications are simply too pernicious to permit any but the most exact connection between justification and classification," Fullilove v. Klutznick, 448 U.S. 448, 537, 100 S. Ct. 2758, 65 L. Ed. 2d 902 (STEVENS, J., dissenting), governmental distributions of burdens or benefits based on individual racial classifications are reviewed under strict scrutiny, e.g., Johnson v. California, 543 U.S. 499, 505-506, 125 S. Ct. 1141, 160 L. Ed. 2d 949. Thus, the school districts must demonstrate that their use of such classifications is "narrowly tailored" to achieve a "compelling" government interest. Adarand, supra, at 227, 211, 115 S. Ct. 2097, 132 L. Ed. 2d 158 [***6] .

Although remedying the effects of past intentional discrimination is a compelling interest under the strict scrutiny test, see Freeman v. Pitts, 503 U.S. 467, 494, 112 S. Ct. 1430, 118 L. Ed. 2d 108, that interest is not involved here because the Seattle schools were never segregated by law nor subject to court-ordered desegregation, and the desegregation decree to which the Jefferson County schools were previously subject has been dissolved. Moreover, these cases are not governed by Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306, 328, 123 S. Ct. 2325, 156 L. Ed. 2d 304, in which the Court held that, for strict scrutiny purposes, a government interest in student body diversity "in the context of higher education" is compelling. That interest was not focused on race alone but encompassed "all factors that may contribute to student body diversity," id., at 337, 123 S. Ct. 2325, 156 L. Ed. 2d 304, including, e.g., having "overcome personal adversity and family hardship," id., at 338, 123 S. Ct. 2325, 156 L. Ed. 2d 304. Quoting Justice Powell's articulation of diversity in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265, 314-315, 98 S. Ct. 2733, 57 L. Ed. 2d 750 [***7] , the Grutter Court noted that "'it is not an interest in simple ethnic diversity, in which a specified percentage of the student body is in effect guaranteed to be members of selected ethnic groups,' that can justify the use of race," 539 U.S., at 324-325, 123 S. Ct. 2325, 156 L. Ed. 2d 304, but "'a far broader array of qualifications and characteristics of which racial or ethnic origin is but a single though important element, '" id., at 325, 123 S. Ct. 2325, 156 L. Ed. 2d 304. In the present cases, by contrast, race is not considered as part of a broader effort to achieve "exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints," id., at 330, 123 S. Ct. 2325, 156 L. Ed. 2d 304; race, for some students, is determinative standing alone. The districts argue that other factors, such as student preferences, affect assignment decisions under their plans, but under each plan when race comes into play, it is decisive by itself. It is not simply one factor weighed with others in reaching a decision, as in Grutter; it is the factor. See Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244, 275, 123 S. Ct. 2411, 156 L. Ed. 2d 257 [***8] . Even as to race, the plans here employ only a limited notion of diversity, viewing race exclusively in white/nonwhite terms in Seattle and black/"other" terms in Jefferson County. The Grutter Court expressly limited its holding -- defining a specific type of broad-based diversity and noting the unique context of higher education -- but these limitations were largely disregarded by the lower courts in extending Grutter to the sort of classifications at issue here. Pp. 11-17.

(b) Despite the districts' assertion that they employed individual racial classifications in a way necessary to achieve their stated ends, the minimal effect these classifications have on student assignments suggests that other means would be effective. Seattle's racial tiebreaker results, in the end, only in shifting a small number of students between schools. Similarly, Jefferson County admits that its use of racial classifications has had a minimal effect, and claims only that its guidelines provide a firm definition of the goal of racially integrated schools, thereby providing administrators with authority to collaborate with principals and staff to maintain schools within the desired range. Classifying [***9] and assigning schoolchildren according to a binary conception of race is an extreme approach in light of this Court's precedents and the Nation's history of using race in public schools, and requires more than such an amorphous end to justify it. In Grutter, in contrast, the consideration of race was viewed as indispensable in more than tripling minority representation at the law school there at issue. See 539 U.S., at 320, 123 S. Ct. 2325, 156 L. Ed. 2d 304. While the Court does not suggest that greater use of race would be preferable, the minimal impact of the districts' racial classifications on school enrollment casts doubt on the necessity of using such classifications. The districts have also failed to show they considered methods other than explicit racial classifications to achieve their stated goals. Narrow tailoring requires "serious, good faith consideration of workable race-neutral alternatives," id., at 339, 123 S. Ct. 2325, 156 L. Ed. 2d 304, and yet in Seattle several alternative assignment plans -- many of which would not have used express racial classifications -- were rejected with little or no consideration. Jefferson County [***10] has failed to present any evidence that it considered alternatives, even though the district already claims that its goals are achieved primarily through means other than the racial classifications. Pp. 25-28.

THE CHIEF JUSTICE, joined by JUSTICE SCALIA, JUSTICE THOMAS, and JUSTICE ALITO, concluded for additional reasons in Parts III-B and IV that the plans at issue are unconstitutional under this Court's precedents. Pp. 17-25, 28-41.

1. The Court need not resolve the parties' dispute over whether racial diversity in schools has a marked impact on test scores and other objective yardsticks or achieves intangible socialization benefits because it is clear that the racial classifications at issue are not narrowly tailored to the asserted goal. In design and operation, the plans are directed only to racial balance, an objective this Court has repeatedly condemned as illegitimate. They are tied to each district's specific racial demographics, rather than to any pedagogic concept of the level of diversity needed to obtain the asserted educational benefits. Whatever those demographics happen to be drives the required "diversity" number in each district. The districts offer no evidence [***11] that the level of racial diversity necessary to achieve the asserted educational benefits happens to coincide with the racial demographics of the respective districts, or rather the districts' white/nonwhite or black/"other" balance, since that is the only diversity addressed by the plans. In Grutter, the number of minority students the school sought to admit was an undefined "meaningful number" necessary to achieve a genuinely diverse student body, 539 U.S., at 316, 335-336, 123 S. Ct. 2325, 156 L. Ed. 2d 304, and the Court concluded that the law school did not count back from its applicant pool to arrive at that number, id., at 335-336, 123 S. Ct. 2325, 156 L. Ed. 2d 304. Here, in contrast, the schools worked backward to achieve a particular type of racial balance, rather than working forward from some demonstration of the level of diversity that provides the purported benefits. This is a fatal flaw under the Court's existing precedent. See, e.g., Freeman, supra, at 494, 112 S. Ct. 1430, 118 L. Ed. 2d 108. Accepting racial balancing as a compelling state interest would justify imposing racial proportionality throughout American [***12] society, contrary to the Court's repeated admonitions that this is unconstitutional. While the school districts use various verbal formulations to describe the interest they seek to promote -- racial diversity, avoidance of racial isolation, racial integration -- they offer no definition suggesting that their interest differs from racial balancing. Pp. 17-25.

2. If the need for the racial classifications embraced by the school districts is unclear, even on the districts' own terms, the costs are undeniable. Government action dividing people by race is inherently suspect because such classifications promote "notions of racial inferiority and lead to a politics of racial hostility," Croson, supra, at 493, 109 S. Ct. 706, 102 L. Ed. 2d 854, "reinforce the belief, held by too many for too much of our history, that individuals should be judged by the color of their skin," Shaw v. Reno, 509 U.S. 630, 657, 113 S. Ct. 2816, 125 L. Ed. 2d 511, and "endorse race-based reasoning and the conception of a Nation divided into racial blocs, thus contributing to an escalation of racial hostility and conflict," Metro Broadcasting, Inc. v. FCC, 497 U.S. 547, 603, 110 S. Ct. 2997, 111 L. Ed. 2d 445 [***13] (O'Connor, J., dissenting). When it comes to using race to assign children to schools, history will be heard. In Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873, the Court held that segregation deprived black children of equal educational opportunities regardless of whether school facilities and other tangible factors were equal, because the classification and separation themselves denoted inferiority. Id., at 493-494, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873. It was not the inequality of the facilities but the fact of legally separating children based on race on which the Court relied to find a constitutional violation in that case. Id., at 494, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873. The districts here invoke the ultimate goal of those who filed Brown and subsequent cases to support their argument, but the argument of the plaintiff in Brown was that the Equal Protection Clause "prevents states from according differential treatment to American children on the basis of their color or race," and that view prevailed -- this Court ruled in its remedial opinion that Brown required school [***14] districts "to achieve a system of determining admission to the public schools on a nonracial basis." Brown v. Board of Education, 349 U.S. 294, 300-301, 75 S. Ct. 753, 99 L. Ed. 1083, 71 Ohio Law Abs. 584 (emphasis added). Pp. 28-41.

JUSTICE KENNEDY agreed that the Court has jurisdiction to decide these cases and that respondents' student assignment plans are not narrowly tailored to achieve the compelling goal of diversity properly defined, but concluded that some parts of the plurality opinion imply an unyielding insistence that race cannot be a factor in instances when it may be taken into account. Pp. 1-9.

(a) As part of its burden of proving that racial classifications are narrowly tailored to further compelling interests, the government must establish, in detail, how decisions based on an individual student's race are made in a challenged program. The Jefferson County Board of Education fails to meet this threshold mandate when it concedes it denied Joshua's requested kindergarten transfer on the basis of his race under its guidelines, yet also maintains that the guidelines do not apply to kindergartners. This discrepancy is not some simple [***15] and straightforward error that touches only upon the peripheries of the district's use of individual racial classifications. As becomes clearer when the district's plan is further considered, Jefferson County has explained how and when it employs these classifications only in terms so broad and imprecise that they cannot withstand strict scrutiny. In its briefing it fails to make clear -- even in the limited respects implicated by Joshua's initial assignment and transfer denial -- whether in fact it relies on racial classifications in a manner narrowly tailored to the interest in question, rather than in the far-reaching, inconsistent, and ad hoc manner that a less forgiving reading of the record would suggest. When a court subjects governmental action to strict scrutiny, it cannot construe ambiguities in favor of the government. In the Seattle case, the school district has gone further in describing the methods and criteria used to determine assignment decisions based on individual racial classifications, but it has nevertheless failed to explain why, in a district composed of a diversity of races, with only a minority of the students classified as "white," it has employed the [***16] crude racial categories of "white" and "non-white" as the basis for its assignment decisions. Far from being narrowly tailored, this system threatens to defeat its own ends, and the district has provided no convincing explanation for its design. Pp. 2-6.

(b) The plurality opinion is too dismissive of government's legitimate interest in ensuring that all people have equal opportunity regardless of their race. In administering public schools, it is permissible to consider the schools' racial makeup and adopt general policies to encourage a diverse student body, one aspect of which is its racial composition. Cf. Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306, 123 S. Ct. 2325, 156 L. Ed. 2d 304. School authorities concerned that their student bodies' racial compositions interfere with offering an equal educational opportunity to all are free to devise race-conscious measures to address the problem in a general way and without treating each student in different fashion based solely on a systematic, individual typing by race. Such measures may include strategic site selection of new schools; drawing attendance zones with general recognition of neighborhood demographics; allocating [***17] resources for special programs; recruiting students and faculty in a targeted fashion; and tracking enrollments, performance, and other statistics by race.

Each respondent has failed to provide the necessary support for the proposition that there is no other way than individual racial classifications to avoid racial isolation in their school districts. Cf. Richmond v. J. A. Croson Co., 488 U.S. 469, 501, 109 S. Ct. 706, 102 L. Ed. 2d 854. In these cases, the fact that the number of students whose assignment depends on express racial classifications is small suggests that the schools could have achieved their stated ends through different means, including the facially race-neutral means set forth above or, if necessary, a more nuanced, individual evaluation of school needs and student characteristics that might include race as a component. The latter approach would be informed by Grutter, though the criteria relevant to student placement would differ based on the students' age, the parents' needs, and the schools' role. Pp. 6-9.

COUNSEL: Harry J.F. Korrell argued the cause for petitioner in No. 05-908.

[***18]Teddy B. Gordon argued the cause for petitioner in No. 05-915.

Paul D. Clement argued the cause for the United States, as amicus curiae, by special leave of court.

Michael F. Madden argued the cause for respondents in No. 05-908.

Francis J. Mellen, Jr. argued the cause for respondents in No. 05-915.

JUDGES: ROBERTS, C. J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, III-A, and III-C, in which SCALIA, KENNEDY, THOMAS, and ALITO, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Parts III-B and IV, in which SCALIA, THOMAS, and ALITO, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed a concurring opinion. KENNEDY, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion. BREYER, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which STEVENS, SOUTER, and GINSBURG, JJ., joined.

OPINION BY: ROBERTS

OPINION:

[*2746][**517]CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS announced the judgment of the Court, and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, III-A, and III-C, and an opinion with respect to Parts III-B and IV, in which JUSTICES SCALIA, THOMAS, and [***19] ALITO join.

The school districts in these cases voluntarily adopted student assignment plans that rely upon race to determine which public schools certain children may attend. The Seattle school district classifies children as white or nonwhite; the Jefferson County school district as black or "other." In Seattle, this racial classification is used to allocate slots in oversubscribed high schools. In Jefferson County, it is used to make certain elementary school assignments and to rule on transfer requests. In each case, the school district relies upon an individual student's race in assigning that student to a particular school, so that the racial balance at the school falls within a predetermined range based on the racial composition of the school district as a whole. Parents of students denied assignment to particular schools under these plans solely because of their race brought suit, contending that allocating children to different public schools on the basis of race violated the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection. The Courts of Appeals below upheld the plans. We granted certiorari, and now reverse.

I

Both cases present the same [***20] underlying legal question -- whether a public school that had not operated legally segregated schools or has been found to be unitary may choose to classify students by race and rely upon that classification in making school assignments. Although we examine the plans under the same legal framework, the specifics of the two plans, and the circumstances surrounding their adoption, are in some respects quite different.

A

Seattle School District No. 1 operates 10 regular public high schools. In 1998, it adopted the plan at issue in this case for assigning students to these schools. App. in No. 05-908, pp. 90a-92a. n1 The plan [*2747] allows incoming ninth graders to choose from among any of the district's high schools, [**518] ranking however many schools they wish in order of preference.

n1 The plan was in effect from 1999-2002, for three school years. This litigation was commenced in July 2000, and the record in the District Court was closed before assignments for the 2001-2002 school year were made. See Brief for Respondents in No. 05-908, p. 9, n. 9. We rely, as did the lower courts, largely on data from the 2000-2001 school year in evaluating the plan. See 426 F.3d 1162, 1169-1171 (CA9 2005) (en banc) (Parents Involved VII).

[***21]

Some schools are more popular than others. If too many students list the same school as their first choice, the district employs a series of "tiebreakers" to determine who will fill the open slots at the oversubscribed school. The first tiebreaker selects for admission students who have a sibling currently enrolled in the chosen school. The next tiebreaker depends upon the racial composition of the particular school and the race of the individual student. In the district's public schools approximately 41 percent of enrolled students are white; the remaining 59 percent, comprising all other racial groups, are classified by Seattle for assignment purposes as nonwhite. Id., at 38a, 103a. n2 If an oversubscribed school is not within 10 percentage points of the district's overall white/nonwhite racial balance, it is what the district calls "integration positive," and the district employs a tiebreaker that selects for assignment students whose race "will serve to bring the school into balance." Id., at 38a. See Parents Involved VII, 426 F.3d 1162, 1169-1170 (CA9 2005) (en banc). n3 If it is still necessary to select students for the school after using the racial [***22] tiebreaker, the next tiebreaker is the geographic proximity of the school to the student's residence. App. in No. 05-908, at 38a.

n2 The racial breakdown of this nonwhite group is approximately 23.8 percent Asian-American, 23.1 percent African-American, 10.3 percent Latino, and 2.8 percent Native-American. See 377 F.3d 949, 1005-1006 (CA9 2004) (Parents Involved VI) (Graber, J., dissenting).

n3 For the 2001-2002 school year, the deviation permitted from the desired racial composition was increased from 10 to 15 percent. App. in No. 05-908, p. 38a. The bulk of the data in the record was collected using the 10 percent band, see n. 1, supra.

Seattle has never operated segregated schools -- legally separate schools for students of different races -- nor has it ever been subject to court-ordered desegregation. It nonetheless employs the racial tiebreaker in an attempt to address the effects of racially identifiable housing patterns on school assignments. Most white students live in the northern [***23] part of Seattle, most students of other racial backgrounds in the southern part. Parents Involved VII, supra, at 1166. Four of Seattle's high schools are located in the north -- Ballard, Nathan Hale, Ingraham, and Roosevelt -- and five in the south -- Rainier Beach, Cleveland, West Seattle, Chief Sealth, and Franklin. One school -- Garfield -- is more or less in the center of Seattle. App. in No. 05-908, at 38a-39a, 45a.

For the 2000-2001 school year, five of these schools were oversubscribed -- Ballard, Nathan Hale, Roosevelt, Garfield, and Franklin -- so much so that 82 percent of incoming ninth graders ranked one of these schools as their first choice. Id., at 38a. Three of the oversubscribed schools were "integration positive" because the school's white enrollment the previous school year was greater than 51 percent -- Ballard, Nathan Hale, and Roosevelt. Thus, more nonwhite students (107, 27, and 82, respectively) who selected one of these three schools as a top choice received placement at the school than would have been the case had race not been considered, and proximity been the next tiebreaker. Id., at 39a-40a. Franklin was [*2748] "integration positive" [***24] because its nonwhite enrollment the previous school year was greater than 69 percent; 89 more white students [**519] were assigned to Franklin by operation of the racial tiebreaker in the 2000-2001 school year than otherwise would have been. Ibid. Garfield was the only oversubscribed school whose composition during the 1999-2000 school year was within the racial guidelines, although in previous years Garfield's enrollment had been predominantly nonwhite, and the racial tiebreaker had been used to give preference to white students. Id., at 39a.

Petitioner Parents Involved in Community Schools (Parents Involved) is a nonprofit corporation comprising the parents of children who have been or may be denied assignment to their chosen high school in the district because of their race. The concerns of Parents Involved are illustrated by Jill Kurfirst, who sought to enroll her ninth-grade son, Andy Meeks, in Ballard High School's special Biotechnology Career Academy. Andy suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia, but had made good progress with hands-on instruction, and his mother and middle school teachers thought that the smaller biotechnology program [***25] held the most promise for his continued success. Andy was accepted into this selective program but, because of the racial tiebreaker, was denied assignment to Ballard High School. Id., at 143a-146a, 152a-160a. Parents Involved commenced this suit in the Western District of Washington, alleging that Seattle's use of race in assignments violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, n4 Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, n5 and the Washington Civil Rights Act. n6 Id., at 28a-35a.

n4 "No State shall . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." U.S. Const., Amdt. 14, § 1.

n5 "No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race . . . be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." 78 Stat. 252, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d.

n6 "The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting." Wash. Rev. Code § 49.60.400(1) (2006).

[***26]

The District Court granted summary judgment to the school district, finding that state law did not bar the district's use of the racial tiebreaker and that the plan survived strict scrutiny on the federal constitutional claim because it was narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest. 137 F. Supp. 2d 1224, 1240 (WD Wash. 2001) (Parents Involved I). The Ninth Circuit initially reversed based on its interpretation of the Washington Civil Rights Act, 285 F.3d 1236, 1253 (2002) (Parents Involved II), and enjoined the district's use of the integration tiebreaker, id., at 1257. Upon realizing that the litigation would not be resolved in time for assignment decisions for the 2002-2003 school year, the Ninth Circuit withdrew its opinion, 294 F.3d 1084 (2002) (Parents Involved III), vacated the injunction, and, pursuant to Wash. Rev. Code § 2.60.020 (2006), certified the state-law question to the Washington Supreme Court, [***27] 294 F.3d 1085, 1087 (2002) (Parents Involved IV).

The Washington Supreme Court determined that the State Civil Rights Act bars only preferential treatment programs "where race or gender is used by government to select a less qualified applicant over a [**520] more qualified applicant," and not "programs which are racially neutral, such as the [district's] open choice plan." [*2749]Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School Dist., No. 1, 149 Wn. 2d 660, 689-690, 663, 72 P. 3d 151, 166, 153 (2003) (en banc) (Parents Involved V). The state court returned the case to the Ninth Circuit for further proceedings. Id., at 690, 72 P. 3d, at 167.

A panel of the Ninth Circuit then again reversed the District Court, this time ruling on the federal constitutional question. Parents Involved VI, 377 F.3d 949 (2004). The panel determined that while achieving racial diversity and avoiding racial isolation are compelling government interests, id., at 964, Seattle's use of the racial tiebreaker was not narrowly tailored to achieve these interests, [***28]id., at 980. The Ninth Circuit granted rehearing en banc, 395 F.3d 1168 (2005), and overruled the panel decision, affirming the District Court's determination that Seattle's plan was narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest, Parents Involved VII, 426 F.3d at 1192-1193. We granted certiorari. 547 U.S. , 126 S. Ct. 2351, 165 L. Ed. 2d 277 (2006).

B

Jefferson County Public Schools operates the public school system in metropolitan Louisville, Kentucky. In 1973 a federal court found that Jefferson County had maintained a segregated school system, Newburg Area Council, Inc. v. Board of Ed. of Jefferson Cty., 489 F.2d 925, 932 (CA6) , vacated and remanded, 418 U.S. 918, 94 S. Ct. 3208, 94 S. Ct. 3209, reinstated with modifications, 510 F.2d 1358, 1359 (CA6 1974), and in 1975 the District Court entered a desegregation decree. See Hampton v. Jefferson Cty. Bd. of Ed., 72 F. Supp. 2d 753, 762-764 (WD Ky. 1999). Jefferson County operated under this decree until 2000, when the District Court dissolved the decree after finding that the district [***29] had achieved unitary status by eliminating "to the greatest extent practicable" the vestiges of its prior policy of segregation. Hampton v. Jefferson Cty. Bd. of Ed., 102 F. Supp. 2d 358, 360 (2000). See Board of Ed. of Oklahoma City Public Schools v. Dowell, 498 U.S. 237, 249-250, 111 S. Ct. 630, 112 L. Ed. 2d 715 (1991); Green v. County School Board, 391 U.S. 430, 435-436, 88 S. Ct. 1689, 20 L. Ed. 2d 716 (1968).

In 2001, after the decree had been dissolved, Jefferson County adopted the voluntary student assignment plan at issue in this case. App. in No. 05-915, p. 77. Approximately 34 percent of the district's 97,000 students are black; most of the remaining 66 percent are white. McFarland v. Jefferson Cty. Public Schools, 330 F. Supp. 2d 834, 839-840, and n. 6 (WD Ky. 2004) (McFarland I). The plan requires all nonmagnet schools to maintain a minimum black enrollment of 15 percent, and a maximum black enrollment of 50 percent. App. in No. 05-915, at 81; [***30]McFarland I, supra, at 842.

At the elementary school level, based on his or her address, each student is designated a "resides" school to which students within a specific geographic area are assigned; elementary resides schools are "grouped into clusters in order to facilitate integration." App. in No. 05-915, at 82. The district assigns students to nonmagnet schools in one of two ways: Parents of kindergartners, first-graders, and students new to the district may submit an application [**521] indicating a first and second choice among the schools within their cluster; students who do not submit such an application are assigned within the cluster by the district. "Decisions to assign students to schools within each cluster are based on available space within the schools and the racial guidelines in the District's current student assignment plan." Id., at 38. If a school has reached the "extremes of the [*2750] racial guidelines," a student whose race would contribute to the school's racial imbalance will not be assigned there. Id., at 38-39, 82. After assignment, students at all grade levels are permitted to apply to transfer between nonmagnet schools in the [***31] district. Transfers may be requested for any number of reasons, and may be denied because of lack of available space or on the basis of the racial guidelines. Id., at 43. n7

n7 Middle and high school students are designated a single resides school and assigned to that school unless it is at the extremes of the racial guidelines. Students may also apply to a magnet school or program, or, at the high school level, take advantage of an open enrollment plan that allows ninth-grade students to apply for admission to any nonmagnet high school. App. in No. 05-915, pp. 39-41, 82-83.

When petitioner Crystal Meredith moved into the school district in August 2002, she sought to enroll her son, Joshua McDonald, in kindergarten for the 2002-2003 school year. His resides school was only a mile from his new home, but it had no available space -- assignments had been made in May, and the class was full. Jefferson County assigned Joshua to another elementary school in his cluster, Young Elementary. This school was 10 miles [***32] from home, and Meredith sought to transfer Joshua to a school in a different cluster, Bloom Elementary, which -- like his resides school -- was only a mile from home. See Tr. in McFarland I, pp. 1-49 through 1-54 (Dec. 8, 2003). Space was available at Bloom, and intercluster transfers are allowed, but Joshua's transfer was nonetheless denied because, in the words of Jefferson County, "the transfer would have an adverse effect on desegregation compliance" of Young. App. in No. 05-915, at 97. n8

n8 It is not clear why the racial guidelines were even applied to Joshua's transfer application -- the guidelines supposedly do not apply at the kindergarten level. Id., at 43. Neither party disputes, however, that Joshua's transfer application was denied under the racial guidelines, and Meredith's objection is not that the guidelines were misapplied but rather that race was used at all.

Meredith brought suit in the Western District of Kentucky, alleging violations of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment [***33] . The District Court found that Jefferson County had asserted a compelling interest in maintaining racially diverse schools, and that the assignment plan was (in all relevant respects) narrowly tailored to serve that compelling interest. McFarland I, supra, at 837. n9 The Sixth Circuit affirmed in a per curiam opinion relying upon the reasoning of the District Court, concluding that a written opinion "would serve no useful purpose." McFarland v. Jefferson Cty. Public Schools, 416 F.3d 513, 514 (2005) (McFarland II). We granted certiorari. 547 U.S. , [**522] 126 S. Ct. 2351, 165 L. Ed. 2d 277 (2006).

n9 Meredith joined a pending lawsuit filed by several other plaintiffs. See id., at 7-11. The other plaintiffs all challenged assignments to certain specialized schools, and the District Court found these assignments, which are no longer at issue in this case, unconstitutional. McFarland I, 330 F. Supp. 2d 834, 837, 864 (WD Ky. 2004).



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