Supreme Court Hands Down a Win for Affirmative Action

In a 4-3 decision today, the US Supreme Court upheld a race-conscious admissions policy at the University of Texas, issuing a decisive blow to opponents of affirmative action.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in Fisher v. Texas (“Fisher II”), which strongly reaffirmed the principle that achieving a diverse student body is a compelling interest. The opinion reasserted prior Supreme Court rulings that race can be considered as a factor in admissions in order to create a student body that “promotes cross-racial understanding, helps to break down racial stereotypes, and enables students to better understand persons of different races.”

This is the second time that the Supreme Court has upheld the University of Texas (UT) admissions policy. UT has a two-tiered admissions process. First, the school admits all Texas residents who rank in the top ten percent of their high school class. Then, UT conducts a “whole-file” review of the remaining applicants to fill the rest of its available spots. As part of that “whole-file” review, UT considers, as one factor, the racial background of an applicant, along with other criteria, including extracurricular activities, community service, awards, socioeconomic status, work experience, etc. in order to create a diverse student body. The Fifth Circuit has twice found that this admissions program was constitutionally permissible.

NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund President and Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill called the Supreme Court decision “a victory for all Americans.” She continued, “Today’s decision sends a strong message to those who continuously seek to undermine racial diversity that the Court will not waver and take our country backwards.”

Civil rights advocates, speaking on a press call, also emphasized that the case sends a powerful message to young people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds who are anticipating the college application process. According to Marisa Bono, MALDEF Southwest Regional Counsel, the Supreme Court today told these young people: “You have a fair shot.”

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joined Justice Kennedy in the majority opinion. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr., dissented.

During oral arguments in December 2015, the late Justice Antonin Scalia caused controversy when he seemed to imply that African-American students may not deserve admission to the University of Texas. “There are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to get them into the University of Texas, where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well,” said Scalia at the time. “One of the briefs pointed out that most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas. They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them.” Scalia went on to say, “I’m just not impressed by the fact the University of Texas may have fewer [blacks]. Maybe it ought to have fewer. I don’t think it stands to reason that it’s a good thing for the University of Texas to admit as many blacks as possible.”

The Court’s opinion today did not condone racial quotas, a system that the University of Texas does not use, but it did reaffirm that school’s have an interest in considering the whole applicant—which includes consideration of that person’s racial background, as well as other factors—in making an admissions decision.

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