WASHINGTON -- State universities that once were segregated by race -- like Maryland's -- could wind up with a broader duty to wipe out lingering effects of their past bias, if hints emerging at a Supreme Court hearing yesterday are translated into a decision.
Three justices whose votes may control the outcome of a historic test case on college desegregation asked questions that implied strong skepticism of the idea that the Constitution would be satisfied if colleges simply embraced race neutrality as a policy and stopped with that.
Of the three, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor went the furthest to suggest that prior court rulings requiring segregated public school systems to wipe out all "vestiges" of past racism in elementary and high schools might apply as fully to state colleges.
The court held a one-hour hearing on the most important college desegregation case it has faced since the basic public school desegregation ruling in 1954. The case, from Mississippi, is expected to lead to a ruling that will shape efforts to desegregate state university systems in seven states -- including Maryland.
The scope of the University of Maryland's desegregation obligation is now under review by the U.S. Department of Education. The constitutional standard the court sets in the Mississippi case will apply directly.
During yesterday's hearing, Justice O'Connor directly contradicted a lawyer for the Mississippi state college system, William F. Goodman Jr. of Jackson, when he insisted that the state had no duty to remedy deficiencies the state had caused at colleges originally set up only for blacks and still attended, in the main, by black students.
"I would have thought that was what our cases required," the justice commented. But Mr. Goodman insisted that, once the state had ceased official discrimination based on race and moved to a "genuine freedom of choice" plan giving the students the option of where to go to college, it had done enough to meet its constitutional duty.
Two other justices, Anthony M. Kennedy and David H. Souter, askedquestions that appeared to be challenging the legal basis for Mr. Goodman's argument that the state had now done all that it needed to do to desegregate its public college system.
The state is relying on a 1986 Supreme Court ruling allowing a state to cure racial segregation of state-operated 4-H clubs simply by adopting an open-membership policy. Justices Kennedy and Souter, however, wondered out loud whether that ruling had anything to do with the far more complex process of desegregating a statewide university system.
The reactions of Justices O'Connor, Kennedy and Souter may be crucial, since the court may split deeply in the Mississippi case. With two justices -- Harry A. Blackmun and John Paul Stevens -- thought likely to favor more efforts toward college desegregation, three other votes sympathetic to that view would make a majority.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia asked questions that left the impression that Mississippi may have done enough to satisfy their views of its constitutional obligation.
Justice Byron R. White took an active part in the questioning but gave no indications of his leanings. Neither did Justice Clarence Thomas, the newest member of the court.
Justice Thomas, who so far has taken little part in most court hearings, did ask brief questions of the Mississippi lawyer yesterday, drawing a reply that Mississippi would have no greater duty to provide funds to improve programs at a college deprived of funds by past segregation policy than it would at a college that had never discriminated on the basis of race.
The Bush administration's top Supreme Court advocate, Solicitor General Kenneth W. Starr, took a position somewhat between that of Mississippi and that of black Mississippians challenging the state university system.
Mr. Starr suggested that the court should require once-segregated universities to wipe out what remains of past discrimination, but only to the extent necessary to assure that students have an "unfettered choice" about where they attend college.
The black Mississippians' lawyer in the case, Alvin O. Chambliss Jr. of Oxford, roundly condemned the Mississippi college system, saying that it was "rooted in the days of apartheid" in the state and remains segregated today.