In a 4-3 vote Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that UT-Austin may continue considering race in admissions decisions—putting an end to an eight-year legal battle and scoring a significant victory for supporters of affirmative action.
Abigail Fisher, a white student from Sugar Land, Texas, was denied admission to the university in 2008. Her class rank was not high enough to qualify her for automatic admission to UT under the controversial Top 10 Percent Law. Under the law, UT fills about 75 percent of each class via automatic admissions, and the remaining 25 percent of applicants are considered under “holistic review,” in which race can be a factor.
Fisher went on to graduate from Louisiana State University, but sued UT, arguing that its consideration of race was unconstitutional. The case has been working its way through the legal system ever since, and was twice bounced back to a lower court.
In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy ruled that UT’s use of race in admissions is legal under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. He stressed, however, that universities must walk a fine line when considering race.
“Considerable deference is owed to a university in defining those intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission,” Kennedy wrote. “But still, it remains an enduring challenge to our nation’s education system to reconcile the pursuit of diversity with the constitutional promise of equal treatment and dignity.”
In his dissenting opinion, Justice Samuel Alito argued that UT has not satisfied the burden of “strict scrutiny,” demonstrating that the use of race in admissions is as limited as possible and is the only way to achieve a diverse student body.
“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,” Alito wrote. “This conclusion is remarkable—and remarkably wrong.”
Alito was joined in his dissent by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. Justice Clarence Thomas also dissented. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor joined Kennedy. Elana Kagan recused herself (she worked on the case in the Obama administration prior to her appointment).
Fisher expressed her dismay in a statement. “I am disappointed that the Supreme Court has ruled that students applying to the University of Texas can be treated differently because of their race or ethnicity,” she said. “I hope that the nation will one day move beyond affirmative action.”
UT has not yet released an official statement, but President Greg Fenves voiced his support for the decision on Twitter. “I deeply believe in the benefits of diversity in education,” he wrote. “I’m pleased that SCOTUS has reaffirmed its importance.”
Fisher v. Texas is only the most recent in a long line of landmark cases on affirmative action, such as 2003’s Grutter v. Bollinger and 1978’s California v. Bakke, and it probably won’t be the last. Kennedy emphasized the limitations of the ruling in his majority opinion, writing that the university must meet a “continuing obligation to satisfy the burden of strict scrutiny in light of changing circumstances.”
Editor’s Note: The Texas Exes takes no position on the use of race in admissions.
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