Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s long oral dissent from the court’s 6-2 decision on an affirmative action case stemming from a Michigan ballot initiative was one of those moments whose meaning will likely become more clear with passing years.

The substance of Justice Sotomayor’s dissent was race and why it matters in higher education. The mere existence of her vehement retort and her very presence on the court carried meaning as well.

The New York Times on Sunday noted that today’s Supreme Court is unprecedented in its political division. Using historical analysis, the Times court correspondent Adam Liptak noted that for the first time the court’s justices are aligned according to the political party whose president appointed them. Liptak wrote that, “The perception that partisan politics has infected the court’s work may do lasting damage to its prestige and authority and to Americans’ faith in the rule of law.”

Supreme Court justices are a narrow subset of the legal profession. Many of them have no real-life political experience. They have spent their lives on a track of think tanks and clerking. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was the last member of the court to have served in elective office. O’Connor notably brought pragmatism to her side of debate, and she was for years the court’s swing vote.

We forget how few women have served on the high court.

Sotomayor lost the day in the 6-2 affirmative action ruling, but the larger point is about the importance of giving some Americans an extra boost. We do this all the time, and not just along racial lines. Clatsop Community College annually celebrates its WINGS (Women Interested in Going to School) program, which targets women who want to re-enter the work force. CCC has also run special programs aimed at young people who will be the first in their family to attend college.

Education is a richer process when students are not of one economic, sexual or racial set. That is the history of higher education in America, which began as a stepping stone only for white males.

Progressive universities know the value of diversity. Portland State University and the University of Oregon, for example, seek racial and cultural diversity and they advertise that as a feature of value for all students.

Giving segments of the population a boost toward higher education has made sense, and it always will.

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