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Supreme Court will consider taking up major challenge to affirmative action

The Supreme Court will soon consider taking up a challenge to Harvard’s use of racial criteria in its admissions process, which could tee up a landmark showdown over affirmative action in higher education.

The justices on Tuesday scheduled the case for discussion on June 10 during their private weekly conference. If four or more justices ultimately agree to grant review, then arguments could come as soon as next term, with a decision possible by summer 2022. 

The case arose after a conservative-backed group, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), sued Harvard, alleging the school illegally discriminates against Asian American applicants.

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In its February petition to the Supreme Court, SFFA urged the justices to overturn Grutter v. Bollinger, a landmark 2003 decision upholding the right of college admissions boards to factor in applicants’ race in order to benefit minority groups and enhance diversity.

“Grutter’s core holding — that universities can use race in admissions to pursue student-body diversity — is plainly wrong,” the group's petition states. The challengers say their case against Harvard’s policy gives the court an “ideal vehicle” for reevaluating its stance on affirmative action given the school’s outsize role in past rulings.

In 2019, a Boston-based federal judge rejected SFFA's bid, finding Harvard's admissions program was lawful. That decision was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, prompting SFFA’s appeal to the Supreme Court. 

Harvard, in an opposition brief last week, denied that its policy is discriminatory and accused SFFA of a brazen attempt to upend decades of precedent allowing schools’ use racial distinctions in admissions programs.

The case is Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, No. 20-1199.