Supreme Court sends Texas affirmative action case back to lower court
The 7-to-1 Supreme Court decision requires the lower court to apply a new, tougher test to the case: Schools challenged on race-based admissions policies must show that there are no workable, race-neutral alternatives to achieve diversity.
The US Supreme Court on Monday stopped short of striking down a race-based admissions program at the University of Texas and instead sent the case back to a lower court to undertake a more rigorous examination of whether the program violates equal protection rights of white students.Skip to next paragraph
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The high court voted 7 to 1 to send the case back to the Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals to apply the highest level of judicial scrutiny to assess whether the university’s plan passes or fails constitutional demands.
“Strict scrutiny does not permit a court to accept a school’s assertion that its admissions process uses race in a permissible way without a court giving close analysis to the evidence of how the process works in practice,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion.
The opinion establishes a new, tougher test for assessing the constitutionality of affirmative action admissions programs. The challenged school must be able to prove there are no workable race-neutral alternatives to achieve a racially diverse student body.
“The reviewing court must ultimately be satisfied that no workable race-neutral alternative would produce the educational benefits of diversity,” Justice Kennedy wrote.
He added that “strict scrutiny imposes on the university the ultimate burden of demonstrating, before turning to racial classifications, that available, workable race-neutral alternatives do not suffice.”
At issue in the case was whether the affirmative action admissions program at the University of Texas at Austin violated the Constitution’s "equal protection" clause by relying too heavily on race as a factor in admitting minority students to the state’s flagship university.
In a lone dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said she would not return the University of Texas case to the lower court for a second look.
“As the thorough opinions below show, the University’s admissions policy flexibly considers race only as a ‘factor of a factor of a factor of a factor’ in the calculus,” she wrote in a four-page dissent.
She said the court was correct to avoid any attempt to overturn the equal protection framework settled an earlier affirmative action precedent, the 2003 decision upholding a race-based admissions program at the University of Michigan Law School.
Kennedy’s majority opinion affirms the 2003 decision approving the use of race as one of several factors in admissions at the Michigan Law School. But the language of Monday’s ruling beefs up the application of strict scrutiny compared with how it was applied in the Michigan Law School case.
Monday’s decision will make it more difficult for college officials to justify the use of race as a factor in college admissions. It places a premium on institutions developing race-neutral criteria and other color-blind procedures.
Kennedy said that race-conscious admissions programs must only be used as a last resort, and only then after surviving strict judicial scrutiny.
Civil rights groups reacted with a sense of relief that the high court did not strike down the Texas program.
“Today’s decision is an important victory for our nation’s ongoing work to build a more inclusive, diverse America,” Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a statement.
“We believe that the University of Texas’s admissions policy is a carefully crafted one that will ultimately be upheld by the Court of Appeals,” he said.
David Gans of the Constitutional Accountability Center noted that the court avoided directly addressing the constitutional issue in the case.