Big business sides with Obama on affirmative action case before high court

More than 50 large corporations, which spend most of their political donations on Republican candidates, have sided with President Obama on an affirmative action case pending before the Supreme Court.

The firms have filed a brief to the high court urging the justices to accept an admissions policy that looks at various socioeconomic factors, including race. On Oct. 10, Obama’s solicitor general argued for the University of Texas’ race-based admissions policy.

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The companies, which include American Express, Pfizer, Wal-Mart, Halliburton, Intel, Kraft Foods and General Electric, say they “seek to hire the most qualified group of employees, while taking into account all of the characteristics of those employees that will enrich [their] workplaces and strengthen their businesses.”

According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, most of the corporations donated no less than 50 percent of their political action committee funds to Republican candidates during the 2012 election cycle.

Aaron Taylor, an assistant law professor at Saint Louis University, said that a company’s bottom line drives the support for affirmative action.

“Businesses may support GOP policies of lower taxes, and less regulation,” he said. “[But] they're preserving what have been a highly subsidized training ground. [It] helps their bottom line in so many ways.”

In the brief, the companies write, “The rich variety of ideas, perspectives, and experiences to which both minority and non-minority students are exposed in a diverse university setting… are essential to the students’ ability to function in and contribute to the increasingly diverse community in the United States.”

Harry Holzer, a former Department of Labor economist and professor at Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute, said companies have supported affirmative action policies for the last 30 years.

“It's pure positive from their point of view,” he said.

He added, “It makes their jobs a whole lot easier if universities are engaging in [affirmative] action. Companies like to hire workers that match their customer base. It also helps them recruit [potential employees] from those communities.”

Six of the firms in the brief — Deloitte consulting, Halliburton, Dow Chemical Co., Northrop Grumann, Union Pacific and Pricewaterhousecoopers — have given a total of more than $6 million to federal candidates since Jan. 2011. Those six each contributed 61 percent or more of corporate PAC money to Republican candidates.

Accounting behemoth Pricewaterhousecoopers contributed 70 percent of its $1.4 million in federal contributions to individual Republicans while Halliburton — which lists former Vice President Cheney among its former CEOs — gave Republicans 94 percent of its more than $420,000 in Congressional candidate donations.

Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin revolves around recent Louisiana State University graduate Abigail Fisher, who claims that minority students were given admission preference to the University of Texas, her dream school, in spite of an alleged lack of merit.

Texas law requires state universities to automatically grant admission to applicants who were in the top 10 percent of their high school class, but University of Texas at Austin allows race to be used as a factor of admission for students who do not meet the criteria.

Liliana Garces, an assistant professor of Higher Education and Human Development at George Washington University, studied the effect of state-level bans on affirmative action. She is also part of a brief filed to the court by the American Social Science Researchers.

“There has been a statistically significant drops [of minority] representation in graduate study,” she told The Hill. The fields most highly impacted are engineering, natural sciences and social sciences, which is cause for concern, she said, because they are “the particular fields we need to compete internationally.”

Merck, one of the companies who signed the brief, wrote that it “drew on the diversity of its employees in order to broaden access to Gardasil, a vaccine that protects against the virus that causes cervical cancer.”

With the knowledge that religion may keep some people from using the vaccine, it “sought the assistance of its Muslim employees in obtaining Halal certification.”

However, Georgetown’s Holzer said that the odds are stacked against the University of Texas, with the court expected to have five votes supporting Fisher, the petitioner.

“There are other ways to identify [disadvantaged] candidates outside of race. Schools might have to do that if the Supreme Court rules the way we expect them to,” he said. “What they come up with may never be as good as affirmative action.”

The last case on affirmative action before the Supreme Court occurred in 2003, when it upheld the race-based admission system at the University of Michigan Law School in a 5-4 decision. Sixty-five businesses wrote in support of the University of Michigan, many of the same included in the most recent brief. George W. Bush’s administration argued against university’s affirmative action policy. At that time, then-Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was the swing vote.

Justice Elena Kagan, Obama's former solicitor general, has recused herself from the University of Texas case.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who dissented in 2003, could be the swing vote this time around.