WASHINGTON -- It may have been purely coincidental that the Supreme Court banned the use of race to achieve racial diversity in public schools only hours before the year's first presidential debate to focus on minority issues.
Coincidence or not, the Supremes could hardly have handed Democratic candidates a better issue with which to energize their liberal base.
In a 5-4 decision Thursday, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. declared that public school systems cannot use a student's race to achieve or maintain integration. The decision invalidated programs in Seattle and metropolitan Louisville, Ky., that tried to maintain school-by-school diversity by using race to limit transfers or as a "tiebreaker" for admission to particular schools. Hundreds of school districts across the country have similar plans in place.
It is a sign of how complicated race has become as a legal and political issue that justices on both sides of the decision claimed to be acting in the best spirit of the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision.
In his new role as the court's swing vote, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy voted with the majority, but dissented in a separate opinion that criticized Justice Roberts' view as "too dismissive" of such "compelling interests" as "avoiding racial isolation" and resegregation.
Justice Kennedy's moderating influence leaves a door open for school districts to try for racial diversity through the use of nonracial proxies such as home addresses or family income.
Yet, it is easy to imagine Democrats making an issue of the difference judicial appointments make in the wake of a decision that dissenting Justice Stephen G. Breyer denounced as a "radical" step away from settled law. I can see attack ads showing President Bush's face morphing into Justice Roberts' and morphing into, say, Alabama Gov. George Wallace blocking black students in schoolhouse doors in the early 1960s.
Such themes were eagerly picked up at the Democratic debate before a mostly black audience at historically black Howard University. Emceed by talk-show host Tavis Smiley and sponsored by PBS, the "All-American Presidential Forum" will be repeated in September with a debate among the Republican candidates.
It should surprise no one that Mr. Obama ran away with that issue. He cast himself as a product of the Brown decision and knowledgeably praised Thurgood Marshall, then the chief counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and later the first black Supreme Court justice, who developed his winning Brown arguments at Howard's law school. "If it hadn't been for them, I would not be standing here today," Mr. Obama said.
Mr. Richardson noted that "issues of diversity for me - the first Latino to run for president - aren't talking points. They are facts of life."
Unlike the earlier debates that featured Iraq as an incendiary issue, this one was remarkably free of clashes between the candidates. There were few surprises of the sort that move poll numbers. That means Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York wins. Despite the media excitement generated by Mr. Obama, Mrs. Clinton has been a consistent front-runner in polls of Democratic primary voters. That made her the candidate to beat, and her seven opponents never laid a glove on her.
She scored further points by exhibiting the poise, confidence and passion that come from years of dealing with the issues and with black audiences, despite the ridicule heaped upon her by conservatives. The more she is criticized from the right, the more sympathy she appears to generate on the left and the middle, particularly among female voters.
The bigger news was happening off camera as unofficial reports show Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama each raked in more donations during the second quarter of this year than all top five Democratic contenders at this point in 2003 combined. That would put more distance between them and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who has been running a strong third in the polls.
The post-debate spin of Mr. Obama's campaign team is that he is very comfortable with his position and doesn't want to peak too soon. That's wise. But while Mr. Obama appears to be winning favor with the party's black voters, Mrs. Clinton is winning among women, which is a much larger bloc.
With other big issues such as abortion rights hanging in the balance, the Supreme Court may have given the Clinton campaign a major boost. Republicans used abortion rights to rally voters on the right. Mrs. Clinton could use the same issue to energize the left - and the middle.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.