Harry Reid assails 'racist' Scalia comments

By Tal Kopan and Ted Barrett, CNN | 12/10/2015, 2:27 p.m.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid on Thursday took to the Senate floor to attack Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's comments ...
Associate Justice Antonin G. Scalia portrait U.S. Supreme Court

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid on Thursday took to the Senate floor to attack Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's comments during an affirmative action case as "racist" -- and sought to tie him to Donald Trump and Republicans.

The Nevada Democrat was responding to a line of questioning from Scalia during oral arguments at the court on Wednesday in an affirmative action case, Fisher v. Texas.

Scalia seemed to suggest that some African-Americans don't belong in top colleges.

"I'm just not impressed by the fact that the University of Texas may have fewer (African-Americans)," Scalia said, in part. "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."

Reid read Scalia's full comments on the Senate floor Thursday morning and tore them apart.

"These ideas that he pronounced yesterday are racist in application, if not intent," Reid said. "I don't know about his intent, but it is deeply disturbing to hear a Supreme Court justice endorse racist ideas from the bench on the nation's highest court. His endorsement of racist theories has frightening ramifications, not the least of which is to undermine the academic achievements of Americans, African-Americans especially."

Reid also tied the comments to rhetoric coming from Trump, the GOP presidential front-runner, and the broader Republican field.

"As we speak, Donald Trump is proposing to ban Muslim immigration. Other leading candidates are proposing a religious test, tossing around slurs on a daily basis," Reid said. "And now a Republican-appointed justice endorsing racist ideas from the Supreme Court bench. The only difference between the ideas endorsed by Trump and Scalia is that Scalia has a robe and a lifetime appointment. Ideas like this don't belong on the Internet, let alone the mouths of national figures."

Reid called Scalia "out of touch" with the nation's ideals and called his comments "distressing," saying they were a reminder of a need for vigilance to protect opportunity for Americans.

"The idea that African-American students are somehow inherently intellectually inferior to other students is despicable," Reid said. "It's a throwback of time to a time that America left behind half a century ago. The idea we should be pushing well-qualified African-Americans out of the top universities into lesser schools is unacceptable."

Reid's diatribe lasted for about five minutes of the Senate's period of morning business. Both Reid and his counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, often use the daily time to speak on issues of concern and make political points.

Scalia was referring to a brief filed in the case that discussed an academic proposition called "mismatch theory."

"There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a less -- a slower-track school where they do well," Scalia said, according to the transcript. "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."

Scalia was apparently referencing a brief filed by Richard Sander, who has written about "mismatch theory."

"Students with an interest in science who are admitted to a very competitive school via a large preference tend to drop out of the sciences at a much higher rate than do otherwise similar students who attend somewhat less competitive programs," the brief said. "Competition mismatch appears to be a major factor in the low rate at which African-American students become scientists, despite high levels of interest in the sciences."

The White House had a fairly muted response, saying only President Barack Obama has a different view than Scalia.

"The sentiment he expressed is not something that anyone who has heard the public comments of senator and now President Obama -- they would detect a difference," press secretary Josh Earnest said in Thursday's briefing. "I think the comments articulated by Justice Scalia represent quite a different view than the priorities and values President Obama has spent his career talking about."