WASHINGTON - Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, famous for his blustery rhetoric from the bench and beyond, finds himself in controversy again after suggesting that some black students might belong at "slower-track" universities.
His remarks Wednesday during court arguments over an affirmative-action program at the University of Texas have drawn rebukes from civil-rights leaders, top Democrats and even the White House. And they returned a familiar spotlight to the feisty justice who doesn't shy away from calling it as he sees it on issues like race and gay marriage.
Scalia has a long history of making remarks in blunt terms without seeming to care about offending those in his sights, reflecting the sensibilities of a staunch conservative born in the 1930s who came of age as the civil-rights movement was beginning.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid denounced Scalia yesterday for uttering what he called "racist ideas" from the bench.
"The idea that African-American students are somehow inherently intellectually inferior from other students is despicable," Reid said on the Senate floor.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the comments stand in "quite stark contrast" to the priorities and values President Obama has advocated through his career. Civil-rights activist Al Sharpton, who attended the arguments, said he didn't know "if I was in the courtroom at the United States Supreme Court or at a Donald Trump rally."
Wednesday's arguments were about whether the University of Texas has reason to consider race among other factors when it evaluates applicants for about a quarter of its freshman class.
Gregory Garre, the university's lawyer, told Scalia that minority students admitted through affirmative action fared better over time than those admitted from the top 10 percent of schools.
Scalia prefaced his comments by noting that one of the briefs in the case "pointed out that most of the black scientists in this country don't come from schools like the University of Texas."
"They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they're being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them," Scalia said. "I'm just not impressed by the fact that the University of Texas may have fewer. Maybe it ought to have fewer. And maybe some - you know, when you take more, the number of blacks, really competent blacks, admitted to lesser schools, turns out to be less."
In his comments Scalia was referring to a legal brief from affirmative-action opponents on research showing that minority students admitted to competitive universities through affirmative action can often struggle to succeed if they don't have top academic abilities. This "mismatch" theory holds that minorities would be better off at less academically rigorous schools.