Split Decision

There is a convenient rhetorical means by which politicians and, yes, editorial writers often manage to embrace opposite sides of an issue simultaneously. The device involves liberal use of the bracketing phrases, "On the one hand ... " followed closely by "On the other hand ... ." We are put in mind of that method of evasion by the U.S. Supreme Court's pair of rulings Monday on differing aspects of the affirmative-action controversy, both involving the University of Michigan.

Race may be considered a factor in determining a candidate's admission to the university's law school, said the court, but racial quotas may not be used in setting admission standards for the school's undergraduate programs. Huh? It's a good thing the court comprises only nine members, not 12, or we'd likely be forced -- quite literally -- to deal with that other notorious equivocating phrase: "Six of one, half-a-dozen of the other."

Granted, there are distinctions to be made between the policy that was approved and the one that was struck down -- and not necessarily hair-splitting ones. But the court still will be perceived as vacillating on both the philosophical and the constitutional issues involved. And the split decision does almost nothing to clarify the issue for future legal challenges. The precedents are clearly so mixed that the question will probably return to the court at some point for further adjudication.

What makes the ambiguity of the two decisions all the more unsettling is that the underlying issue of affirmative action -- in education and, for that matter, in the rest of society -- is one on which conscientious people can and do disagree. The controversy escapes the usual narrow "liberal/conservative" dichotomy.

The silver lining (here comes our own equivocation) is that the twin rulings probably accurately reflect the degree of doubt in the minds of the well-intentioned, and the continued existence of an unresolved gray area might well encourage disputants to conduct fruitful negotiations rather than automatically resort to litigation.

Which is to say, we take our comforts where we find them. On the other hand ...


We do not endorse candidates for local office and we do not intend to start here, but we can't help but take note of the fact that former Commercial Appeal political reporter Terry Keeter is now advertising a forthcoming race for the Memphis City Council. Lest his future opponents start taking umbrage, let us take note that neither we nor Keeter know just yet what seat he might be seeking; so we aren't playing favorites by dropping his name.

We do find his ambitions gratifying, however, for a couple of reasons: First, having both covered local political affairs and groused about them for a number of years, he might even know what he's talking about here and there. (Depending on the race he chooses, that could even make him unique.) The other and more basic reason, though, is that Keeter, an emphysema victim, has only just recovered from what seems to have been a serious bout with the Reaper. For many months, this -- how to say it? -- less-than-bashful personality could not even speak. Now that he's found his voice again, we rejoice in any occasion that encourages him to express himself. We warn you, however; this fellow is what you would call a curmudgeon. Maybe you should hide your ears.


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