TOPICS > Politics

Supreme Court Decision on Women at VMI

June 26, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Tonight we examine two of the day’s high court rulings. The first involves the all-male Virginia Military Institute. On a seven to one decision, the court ruled that the state of Virginia may no longer exclude women from admission to VMI. We get more on that from NewsHour regular Stuart Taylor, correspondent for the “American Lawyer” and “Legal Times.” Welcome, Stuart. What was the basic–what was the basis for the court’s ruling in this case?

STUART TAYLOR, The American Lawyer: The court ruled that it violates the equal protection guarantee of the 14th Amendment for VMI–for the state of Virginia, I should say, to deny to women what it called the unique and extraordinary benefits that men get from attending Virginia Military Institute, a 150-year-old institution with a unique prestigious role in Virginia life.

MS. WARNER: And what was the majority’s reasoning in coming to this, the majority opinion written by, I gather, Justice Ginsberg?

MR. TAYLOR: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who was a crusader for equal rights for women before she came on the court, basically reasoned that women should have all the opportunities men do in Virginia and elsewhere unless there’s what she called an exceedingly persuasive justification why they should not. She reviewed all the justifications Virginia had advanced for keeping VMI all male and rejected them. In particular, she said there are some women who could benefit from a VMI type education, which is sort of a boot camp style approach to education. Even if there aren’t many, there are some, and they should have that opportunity. She also rejected the state’s argument that it would destroy the boot camp style approach VMI uses to admit women.

MS. WARNER: And so VMI, of course, had tried to start a separate program for women at a nearby women’s college. What did the court say about that?

MR. TAYLOR: Yes. The lower court had, had ruled that that was an adequate remedy for excluding women from VMI, give them their own place, and the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership was created recently at Mary Baldwin College. The Supreme–the court said today–Justice Ginsberg said today that it wasn’t equal, it wasn’t funded, it didn’t have a history, it didn’t have the prestige, the students didn’t have as high average SAT scores, they don’t have lots of the same courses, and she said this is just not an adequate substitute for letting women into VMI, itself.

MS. WARNER: So what is going to be the practical effect of this ruling beyond VMI?

MR. TAYLOR: The court didn’t really say. It will certainly mean that the Citadel in South Carolina, the only other all-male state-supported college in the country, will also have to take women, unless perhaps it–it goes private, or something like that, same for VMI. It’s harder to tell what effect it will have on other institutions. Justice Scalia, the lone dissenter, said that it basically means private–it means public single-sex education is dead. He also suggested that it casts some doubt on all state support for private single-sex education, and, of course, there are dozens of thriving private single-sex institutions all over the country that depend heavily on state and federal aid. Now the majority disclaimed any intent to cast a shadow on those institutions.

MS. WARNER: Did they specifically say they didn’t mean the decision to apply to that kind of private institution?

MR. TAYLOR: They didn’t quite say it that way. They emphasized that this is about VMI and the unique role of VMI, and they had a couple of footnotes in which they suggested that it wouldn’t necessarily apply to private institutions. But they didn’t go so far as to say no problem, don’t worry.

MS. WARNER: Yeah. Now the Clinton administration Justice Department had brought this case. Did they get everything they wanted out of this?

MR. TAYLOR: Actually, it started in the Bush administration in 1990 and the Justice Department continued it during the Clinton administration. they got almost everything they wanted, not quite. They had had asked the court to adopt a new test treating sex discrimination by the government exactly like race discrimination, and the court almost did that but not quite. They did, I would say, use language that more broadly condemns sex–government sex discrimination–makes it harder to justify than ever before in the court’s history.

MS. WARNER: All right. Now let’s turn to the second decision on a case from Colorado today, and that involved what political parties can spend in support of candidates. What was that ruling? Explain this to us.

MR. TAYLOR: The court knocked another big hole in a scheme of federal campaign finance regulation that’s already in tatters as a result of a series of court decisions over the past 20 years, finding various parts of those, parts of that law to be contrary to the First Amendment right of people that spend money on political campaigns. But the specific case is a 10-year-old case from Colorado in which the Colorado Republican Party had spent some money to take out radio ads attacking the presumed Democratic nominee for a Senate race. That was then Rep. Tim Wirth, and the Federal Election Campaign said they had exceeded the amount they were allowed to spend under federal election laws, and, and tried to find them. They attacked the constitutionality of the laws, and it went on up to the Supreme Court.

MS. WARNER: And just to be clear on this, I gather that the law basically restricts parties from spending on congressional races, on some formula, what, based on population or something.

MR. TAYLOR: There’s a formula based on voting age population, depending on how much you can spend on various races, including presidential races, which is a separate provision, and there is a cap on how much any political party can spend in support of its candidate. And what the court did today is it said that cap is unconstitutional insofar as it limits what it called independent expenditures by a political party. They cannot be limited. Political parties have a constitutional right to spend as much as they want as long as it’s independent of the candidate.

MS. WARNER: And what had been the rationale for this cap in the first place when this law was passed in the 70’s?

MR. TAYLOR: In general, the federal election campaign finance laws are trying to prevent the appearance that politicians are being bought, that influence is being bought, and they contain a whole number of restrictions. The particular restriction on political parties was they can spend some money. Congress thought they ought to be able to spend fairly substantial amounts of money, but they didn’t want them to be able to spend unlimited amounts, because they were afraid that large contributors to the parties could use that as a back door way of buying influence from their candidates.

MS. WARNER: Because they’re allowed to give a whole lot more to parties than they are to candidates?

MR. TAYLOR: That’s right. You can give $20,000 to a party, and you can only give $1,000 to a candidate for each election.

MS. WARNER: Okay. And so explain this distinction that the court was making today, saying that as long as these expenditures are independent, as you and they put it, that they were unlimited. What does independent mean?

MR. TAYLOR: Well, the Federal Election Commission, there’s a whole history of this. Independent expenditures are expenditures that aren’t coordinated with the candidate. For example, if Bob Dole or Bill Clinton sits down with his party leaders and say, okay, how about you buy some radio ads attacking my opponent, that’s coordinated. If the party goes out and does it by itself, that’s independent. There’s a rough line there. And the Federal Election Commission had argued that parties and their candidates are so much a unity and it’s so hard to draw lines between them that there’s no such thing as an independent expenditure by a party. The Supreme court today said that’s wrong, they looked to the facts of this case where there wasn’t even a nominee or even a presumptive nominee for the Republicans in Colorado at the time of this spending. The party spent the money on its own, and they said that’s independent, constitutionally protected.

MS. WARNER: And so what impact do you think this really will have on this year’s elections?

MR. TAYLOR: In a broad brush way, it will, it will liberate the parties, which have already found all sorts of ways to get around the limits on campaign spending. It will make it even easier. And it may embolden, embolden them just to take off the gloves entirely and spend as much as they want on anything they want, because four members of the court said that all restrictions on spending by parties are unconstitutional. The rest of the majority wasn’t willing to go quite that far, but three of them reserved judgment on it, so a party might say, well, all we need is one more vote, and that’s reasonable enough, particularly since it’ll take ’em years to litigate this, and maybe we pay a fine ten years down the road, but in the meantime, we’ve got an election to win.

MS. WARNER: Well, thank you, Stuart, very much.

MR. TAYLOR: Thank you.

MS. WARNER: Thanks.