“Reverse Carolene Products,” the End of the Second Reconstruction, and Other Thoughts on Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action


This Article tries to make sense out of the political process doctrine in the wake of Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action.

The political process doctrine made a certain amount of prudential sense when created in the late 1960s to invalidate referenda overturning fair housing laws; the Court correctly discerned that these repeals were motivated in substantial part by racism. Moreover, the justices likely thought that the constitutional-amendment-by-referendum process was grossly unfair to blacks for “reverse Carolene Products” reasons, preventing them from counteracting the political disadvantages of an isolated and unpopular minority with the advantages of a concentrated interest group.

The political process doctrine became entirely unstable once the issue of “what’s good for African Americans” and “what’s motivated by racism” became less clear. This had occurred both because of a huge decline since the 1960s in racist attitudes by whites, and because the issues have changed from rectifying overt racial discrimination to more complex social policies. If the political process doctrine is unstable with regard to African Americans, it becomes positively incoherent and unworkable once one considers the diversity both among and within other “minority” groups. 

The Supreme Court is left with four options when it confronts the political process doctrine in the future. Option one is to limit the political process doctrine to the facts analogous to the facts that led to its adoption: a minority group and its allies manage to get a law or law passed protecting them from discrimination, but the majority overturns those laws via a constitutional amendment that changes the political process to their disadvantage.

The second option is that the doctrine would only apply when voters overturn government policy meant to mitigate an unambiguous “racial injury” identified by the Court. This category is likely to be vanishingly small, at best.

Third, if a liberal majority retakes the Court, it could follow Justice Sotomayor’s lead and embrace an expansive version of the political process doctrine.  How to do this coherently remains unclear.

Finally, the Court could follow Justice Scalia’s suggestion and eliminate the doctrine. This path would have the virtue of forthrightness and clarity, but that goes against the grain of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on race, which has long preferred opacity and complication. Moreover, Scalia is shy three votes for this reversal.

And so, the political process doctrine, problematic thought it may be, seems likely to survive in some form for quite some time.