Supreme Court upholds affirmative action program at Texas college

Supreme Court upholds affirmative action program at Texas college
© Greg Nash

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a 4-3 decision that it is lawful for the University of Texas at Austin to consider race when determining student admissions.

While the ruling is a win for supporters of affirmative action, the court did express some reservations about race-based admissions.

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The court said the university’s plan is lawful under the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, but cautioned that the school should continue “to scrutinize the fairness of its admissions program, to assess whether changing demographics have undermined the need for race-conscious policy, and to identify the effects, both positive and negative, of the affirmative-action measures it deems necessary.”

The case centered on Abigail Fisher, a white woman who was denied admission to the school in 2008. Fisher argues that the school’s use of race in the college admissions process is unconstitutional since it already has the top 10 percent plan, which guarantees admission to students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class.

The university argued that race was just one factor in its holistic review of students and that Fisher wouldn’t have been accepted even if she was minority student because she did not have the academic score needed to get into the school’s highly competitive liberal arts program. Because Fisher has already graduated from another school, the university further argued that the case should have been dismissed.

In the majority opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the justices said the school cannot rely on its top 10 percent plan alone to achieve diversity.

“It may be true that the Top Ten Percent Plan is some instances may provide a path out of poverty for those who excel at schools lacking in resources the plan cannot serve as the admissions solution that petitioner suggest,” Kennedy wrote.

The ruling drew praise from Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDavis: The shocking fact that Mueller never would have accused Trump of a crime Trump says he would challenge impeachment in Supreme Court The Hill's Morning Report - Will Joe Biden's unifying strategy work? MORE, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, who called it a "win for all Americans."

“It means that universities can continue to make diversity and inclusion central goals of their admissions processes, and means our college campuses will continue to be places where young adults of all backgrounds can learn from each other,” Clinton said in a statement.

The justices appeared closely divided when oral arguments were heard in January. Justice Elena Kagan’s recusal from the case had court watchers expecting a 4-4 tie, but Justice Antonin Scalia's unexpected death a month later left just seven justices to decide the case.

If and how Scalia had ruled in this case is unknown. Any vote cast in case that has not publicly been announced is void when a justice dies.

Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts dissented from the court’s majority opinion.

In a fiery 51-page dissent, Alito said the University of Texas at Austin (UT) failed to identify with any degree of specificity the interests its use of race and ethnicity in admissions is supposed to serve.

“Even though UT has never provided any coherent explanation for its asserted need to discriminate on the basis of race, and even though UT’s position relies on a series of unsupported and noxious racial assumptions, the majority concludes that UT has met its heavy burden,” he said. “This conclusion is remarkable – and remarkably wrong.”

Alito said the case could lead to future discrimination.

“What is at stake is whether university administrators may justify systematic racial discrimination simply by asserting that such discrimination is necessary to achieve ‘the educational benefits of diversity,’ without explaining – much less proving – why the discrimination is needed or how the discriminatory plan is well crafted to serve its objectives.”

This was the second time the Texas case has come before the court. In 2013, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower courts in a 7-1 decision. The justices said the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals failed to apply the correct standard of strict scrutiny in upholding the university's policy.  

Because the 5th Circuit ruled again in favor of the university, the case found its way back before the high court.

The National Education Association said admissions programs like the one at UT serve an important purpose.

“We do not live in a color-blind society, and race still matters,” NEA President Lily Eskelsen García said in a statement. “When it comes to public education — whether it’s preschool or graduate school — racial classifications continue to carry great weight. If we’re serious about ensuring every child has access to a great public school, no matter his or her ZIP code, then we must uphold diversity programs because there is no question that they serve a compelling state interest.”

Attorney General Loretta Lynch said diverse student enrollment benefits the country. 

“Our country is stronger, more credible, and more effective when our educational institutions include highly-qualified individuals with roots, cultures, and traditions that reflect our nation’s rich diversity,” she said. 

But Judicial Watch, which filed an amicus brief in the case in support of Fisher, slammed the court’s ruling as “racially inflammatory.”

“Today’s decision allowing racial discrimination in college admissions is at odds with the U.S. Constitution and promotes crackpot racial theories,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said. “Today’s decision is racially inflammatory and undermines the rule of law. The government has no business doling out special benefits based on race.” 

The case was Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. 

Updated at 3:01 p.m.