Politics

In Compromise, SCOTUS Upholds Affirmative Action

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Kevin Daley Supreme Court correspondent
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The U.S. Supreme Court issued a long-awaited decision in Fisher v. University of Texas, a landmark challenge to race-based admissions standards at University of Texas at Austin that could have had blockbuster consequences for affirmative action around the country.

In a 4-3 decision by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court ruled that UT’s race-conscious admissions standards are lawful under the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. Kennedy’s opinion was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Samuel Alito filed a dissent, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas.

Justice Elena Kagan recused herself because of her involvement with the case during her tenure as Solicitor General.

The challenge was brought by Abigail N. Fisher, a white female who applied for admission to the University of Texas at Austin in 2008. Fisher was denied admission, and filed suit against UT, claiming the denial of her application was in part related to racial preferences given to minority applicants.

The university evaluates applicants against two scales, an Academic Index (AI) which measures grades and test scores, and a Personal Achievement Index (PAI) which evaluates extracurricular activities, socioeconomic factors, and race. The two scores are merged to create a single AI/PAI score, which weighs heavily when an admissions decision is made.

The case has been heard twice by the high court. In 2013, the justices first heard the case but declined to rule on the merits, remanding the case back to a lower court and instructing it to reevaluate the case according to a standard of strict scrutiny in a 7-1 decision. The strict scrutiny test, the most rigorous standard of judicial review, is meant to assess whether a precisely tailored compelling government interest outweighs a constitutional right or principle.

On remand, the Fifth Circuit ruled against Fisher, finding that race-based admissions standards at UT Austin are both precisely tailored and serve a compelling government interest — educational diversity, the only ground on which the Court has ever sanctioned affirmative action programs on college campuses.

The high court’s ruling was not an unqualified sanctioning of affirmative action programs in higher education. Though the ruling affirms UT’s program as lawful, such programs are justified only if a university can demonstrate that other efforts to achieve campus diversity have failed, and that colleges should expect their race-conscious programs to be tested in court.

“The Court’s affirmance of the University’s admissions policy today does not necessarily mean the University may rely on that same policy without refinement,” Kennedy wrote. “It is the University’s ongoing obligation to engage in constant deliberation and continued reflection regarding its admissions policies.”

Alito — in a rare move — read his dissent from the bench attacked the compromise. “Something strange has happened since our prior decision in this case,” he said.

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