WASHINGTON - Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid on Thursday blasted Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia for uttering what he called "racist ideas" from the bench of the nation's highest court.
Scalia on Wednesday suggested it's possible that some black students would benefit from being at a "slower-track school" instead of the University of Texas' flagship campus in Austin, where Scalia suggested some of those students are "being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them." Scalia made the comment while the court heard arguments in an affirmative action case.
"The idea that African American students are somehow inherently intellectually inferior from other students is despicable," Reid said on the Senate floor. "It's a throwback . . . to a time that America left behind a half a century ago."
The Nevada senator said the idea that black students should be pushed out of top universities into lesser schools is "unacceptable."
"That Justice Scalia could raise such an uninformed idea shows just how out of touch he is with the values of this nation," Reid said. "It goes without saying that an African American student has the same potential to succeed in an academically challenging environment as any other student."
In making his remarks, Scalia said he was referring to research showing that minority students admitted to competitive universities through affirmative action can often struggle to succeed if they don't have top academics. This "mismatch" theory holds that minorities would be better off at less academically rigorous schools.
The theory has been around for more than a decade and Scalia is not alone in embracing it. Justice Clarence Thomas shared similar views in a 2003 case in which he said minority students admitted to the University of Michigan were unprepared for the work they faced.
In the Texas case, Scalia said: "One of the briefs 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 he was "not impressed by the fact that the University of Texas may have fewer" black students. "Maybe it ought to have fewer."
Reid mentioned Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's call this week to block Muslims from entering the United States. Scalia's comments, Reid said, had "frightening ramifications" because of his decisions from the court.
"The only difference between the ideas endorsed by Trump and Scalia is that Scalia has a robe and a lifetime appointment," Reid said. "Ideas like this don't belong on the Internet, let alone the mouths of national figures."
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."
Gregory Garre, the university's lawyer, told Scalia that minority students admitted through the affirmative action program fared better over time than those admitted from the top 10 percent of all schools.
"I just think he's a pull-no-punches kind of guy," said Paul Cassell, a University of Utah law professor and former Scalia clerk who also served as a federal judge.
"He's also got a very sharp mind and he has less patience with arguments that don't quite come to grips with the tough issues."