The U.S. Supreme Court Upholds UT Affirmative Action Program

Even without Justice Scalia the Supremes leaned right on the University of Texas case.
Even without Justice Scalia the Supremes leaned right on the University of Texas case.
Photo courtesy of the United States Supreme Court

In an opinion announced Thursday morning, the U.S. Supreme Court voted to uphold the University of Texas affirmative action program in a 4-3 vote. 

"The race-conscious admissions program in use at the time of petitioner's application is lawful under the Equal Protection Clause," the court held in the opinion penned by Justice Anthony Kennedy. 

The case, Fisher v. University of Texas, centers on a woman named Abigail Fisher who really wanted to go to the University of Texas-Austin, and claimed she was discriminated against because of her race when she didn't get in.

This is the second time Fisher has challenged the university's affirmative action program. The first time, last June, the high court kicked the case back to a lower court with instructions about how the lower court should handle the question. Even the notoriously conservative U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the program was constitutional, so Fisher once again appealed to the Supreme Court. 

As we've noted before, Fisher grew up in Sugar Land, and both her father and her sister went to UT, so she wanted to go there, too. However, when Fisher applied to the school in 2008, UT gave automatic admission to students who graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school class. Fisher had graduated with a 3.59 GPA, scored an 1180 of 1600 on her SAT but failed to land in the top 10 percent, so she had to compete with everyone else for 841 spots that go to lower-tiered students.

UT evaluated Fisher's grades, her submitted essay and her extracurricular activities and decided not to accept her. They felt her academic record was weak, according to ProPublica. But Fisher has never accepted this and continues to insist she was rejected because she's white, and her lawsuit before the court claims she was denied equal protection under the law because race was a factor in deciding who was admitted. 

UT has a complicated admissions program. Texas law guarantees admission to a certain percentage of top graduating high school students in the state. The rest of each university class is admitted based on a number of factors, including race. UT officials maintain students get a better education when there's diversity on the campus. Fisher argued the school's admissions policy is too vague to make decisions based on race. 

Back when the justices heard this case in December, the late Justice Antonin Scalia indicated he'd like to see race-based decisions abolished, but Scalia's death left the conservative block on the court without a key vote and a crucial voice on this.

Justice Elena Kagan didn't weigh in on this case because of her early work with the Obama administration, so the decision came down to the regular swing vote of Chief Justice John Roberts's court, Kennedy. Kennedy, along with Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, voted to uphold the program.

The majority opinion points out that Fisher was not in the top 10 percent of her class and states that "drawing all reasonable inferences in her favor," Fisher never proved she was denied "equal treatment" when she applied to UT.  

Justice Samel Alito penned the dissent, which was joined by Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas.

"Something strange has happened since our prior decision in this case," Alito writes, noting that in the span of time that has passed since the justices last heard the case, the majority of the court has, well, changed its mind. Then Alito got rolling with a stinging dissent, contending UT still hasn't identified "with any degree of specificity" the interests its use of race and ethnicity is meant to serve. Then he really dug in:

"Its primary argument is that merely invoking 'the educational benefits of diversity' is sufficient and that it need not identify any metric that would allow a court to determine whether its plan is needed to serve, or is actually serving, those interests. This is nothing less than the plea for deference that we emphatically rejected in our prior decision. Today, however, the Court inexplicably grants that request. " 

 However, Kennedy looked at the case and came to the opposite conclusion. "The compelling interest that justifies consideration of race in college admissions is not an interest in enrolling a certain number of minority students,"Kennedy states. "Rather, a university may institute a race-conscious admissions program as a means of obtaining 'the educational benefits that flow from student body diversity.'" 


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