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Supreme Court rulings reflect changing times

Supporters Voting Rights Act listen speakers discussing today's rulings outside U.S. Supreme Court building June 25 2013 WashingtDC. The court

Supporters of the Voting Rights Act listen to speakers discussing today's rulings outside the U.S. Supreme Court building on June 25, 2013 in Washington, DC. The court ruled that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which aimed at protecting minority voter

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Updated: July 30, 2013 7:39AM



The 20th century is receding further and further into the rearview mirror, and the nation is struggling to come to terms with the changing realities of a new epoch. Nowhere was that clearer than in the U.S. Supreme Court decisions this week trying to navigate the crosscurrents of American sentiment and experience in race relations and gay rights. Both sides in the emotional cases could claim a degree of success while consoling themselves over less-than-complete victories — an outcome that reflected the journey America is on.

In an affirmative action case from the University of Texas, the high court did not, as many suspected it might, rule on the constitutionality of racial preferences in student admissions. The justices sent the case back to a lower court with instructions to apply the highest level of scrutiny to the university’s claims that it needed sometimes to consider race as one factor in the many it contemplates in putting together a diverse student body.

In short, affirmative action survived but perhaps just barely. That sounds like a reflection on our changing times. No one would argue that racial discrimination in college admissions, however noble its ends may be, should go on forever — and a previous high court decision said it couldn’t. The case for racial preferences as a measure to ensure campus diversity weakens every year as the nation’s changing demographic trends forecast that in 20 years non-Hispanic whites will no longer constitute a majority of the U.S. population.

A more definitive ruling emerged in the court’s declaring that a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional. This decision noted that the states, mostly in the South and West, singled out for special punitive treatment — they had to get federal clearance on any voting system changes — were being held accountable for conditions existing four decades ago when white-run local and state governments ruthlessly suppressed African Americans. Chief Justice John Roberts observed that in five of the states covered by this provision, voter turnout now is higher for blacks than whites. The court affirmed the major plank of the law that states and localities could be sued over racial discrimination in voting and elections. It just said that if the federal government wants to single out specific jurisdictions for special scrutiny, Congress must establish up-to-date standards based on current realities for putting that burden on them and not rely on Jim Crow-era data.

None of this is to say that racism has disappeared, only that we’re living in the age of Barack Obama, not in the era of George Wallace and Lester Maddox.

In the week’s other big decision, on gay rights, the justices rejected the Defense of Marriage Act as a federal intrusion on the long-established right of states to set the requirements for marriage. What’s more, the decision, written by conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, was filled with language extolling the integrity and legitimacy of gay unions. Perhaps mindful of the havoc wreaked on the nation’s politics by the court’s 1973 abortion ruling taking that issue out of the hands of citizens, the justices did not declare a civil right to same-sex marriage. Its closely divided ruling put the court where polls show the nation is — growing, already-majority acceptance of the worth of gay marriage coupled to a belief that states, and not the federal government, should have the power to legalize such unions.

What the court’s rulings this week tell us is that 21st century America is pulling away from the sins and prejudices of the past.



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