Justices have great duty, good parking privileges

January 12, 1995|By WILEY A. HALL

First of all, you can't just cruise up to the U.S. Supreme Court and stroll in. Capitol Hill swarms with security: U.S. Secret Service officers, U.S. Park Police, members of the District of Columbia police department.

And it seems as though the primary purpose of all those law enforcement officers is to protect the parking privileges of the elite.

So I circled Capitol Hill for nearly half an hour yesterday, through a freezing rain, looking for a space. I passed ticketed cars and booted cars and cars being hoisted up and hauled away by parking enforcement tow trucks; when it comes to parking, they play hard ball in our nation's capital. But I suppose democracy must be fed.

I had gone to the Supreme Court for a couple of reasons. First, the nation's highest court was scheduled to hear oral arguments in a landmark school desegregation case from Kansas City, Missouri; a case in which the justices could establish by this summer the legal guidelines for all of us on just how much is enough when it comes to correcting the effects of past discrimination.

In 1984, a federal judge ruled that Kansas City schools with predominantly black populations had been allowed to literally "rot away" after the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of the nation's schools 30 years earlier.

Since 1984, however, Missouri has spent more than $1.3 billion ++ trying to improve conditions. It has built new schools, provided additional supplies and raised salaries. Today, per-pupil spending in Kansas City is more than twice what it is in the rest of the state.

We've done more than our fair share, state officials now say. Enough is enough, they maintain.

But black parents complain that their children continue to lag far behind white students on most standardized tests, and the parents blame the lingering effects of state-sanctioned segregation. You can't reverse a century of oppression in a mere decade, the parents claim.

But I also visited the Supreme Court yesterday for a more mundane reason: I'd never been there before.

The Supreme Court is a marble edifice modeled after Greek architecture that sits directly across from the Capitol. You climb broad marble stairs that are slippery when wet. You pass and pay homage to two looming, brooding statues of Greek gods. You submit meekly to the inspection of those security forces who were not on parking patrol outside. You step through a door, through heavy red curtains, and -- voila! -- you're in.

The courtroom was packed with people. It didn't look much different from any other courtroom, except that the nine justices were arrayed in the front in a gently curving semi-circle, flanked by Ionic columns and American flags.

I had wondered whether the justices would act pompous and overblown or relaxed and folksy. But the atmosphere was collegiate, intense, no-nonsense, like one of those "issues forums" on CNN.

And the justices grilled both sides.

Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor and David H. Souter pounded Missouri's assistant attorney general about the state's contention that test scores should not be used to measure the success or failure of desegregation efforts.

"Why should [the test data] be irrelevant?" demanded Justice Stephen G. Breyer. "If you are making this effort to remedy, don't you think you should at least make an effort to see if students can read now?"

Meanwhile, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy were just as hard on the other side.

At one point, a deputy solicitor general representing the Clinton administration on behalf of black parents suggested comparing test scores of Kansas City students with those of similar cities as a way of determining if the effects of past segregation had been eliminated.

"That sounds like a fascinating sociological inquiry," retorted Justice Kennedy sarcastically, "but it doesn't sound like a practical measure courts can use."

The whole thing seemed intellectual and stimulating. It made me want to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. I felt this even more strongly when I finally made it back to my car.

I had gotten a parking ticket.

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