Supreme Court halts college affirmative action programs

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down affirmative action programs at North Carolina and Harvard University, a major victory for conservative activists.

The court ruled that both programs violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution and were therefore illegal. The vote was 6-3 in the UNC case and 6-2 in the Harvard case, with liberal Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson recusing himself.

The court effectively overruled The 2003 ruling in Gruter v. Bollinger, in which the court held that race may be considered a factor in the admissions process because universities have a compelling interest in maintaining diverse campuses. In doing so, the court overturned decades of precedent, including a 1978 ruling that upheld a limited concept of race in university admissions as a way to combat historical discrimination against black people and other minorities.

University of North Carolina students walk past the campus in Chapel Hill on March 28, 2023.Jonathan Drake/Reuters/Redux

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts did not expressly say that previous precedents were overruled, but in a concurring opinion conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, Only the second black judge to serve on the court, Grutter said the case was “for all intents and purposes, overturned.”

Roberts wrote that both programs “do not have sufficiently focused and measurable objectives to warrant the use of race, use race in an unavoidably negative manner, involve racial stereotyping, and lack meaningful endpoints.”

Jackson, the first black woman to serve on the court, wrote a dissenting opinion that the verdict was “truly a tragedy for all of us.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, another liberal and the first Hispanic justice, wrote that the court “stands in the way and sets back decades of pioneering and important progress.”

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Sotomayor, in a sign of his displeasure, read a lengthy summary of his dissenting opinion in the courtroom.

Thomas, a longtime critic of affirmative action, wrote his own 58-page opinion in which he called the programs in question “unconscionable, race-based preferences designed to ensure a certain racial mix in entering classes.”

Both policies “fly in the face of our color-blind Constitution and our nation’s ideals of equality.”

The ruling is another example of the court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, delivering on long-held goals of conservative legal activists. Following the seismic ruling in 2022, Roe v. Wade was cancelled.

The court’s ruling is a major blow to highly selective universities that say some notion of race is essential to ensuring they have a diverse student body.

A small number of schools with highly competitive admissions programs are most affected. They predict that rulings against colleges will lead to significant declines in enrollment of minority students and require admissions officers to test new racially neutral programs aimed at countering the impact. Most colleges accept almost all applicants and are not affected.

Yale University, Brown University, Columbia University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Chicago and Dartmouth College are among the dozens of institutions with admissions policies that take into account.

Roberts left open the possibility that colleges would consider a discussion of race in an individual student’s application, citing the example of someone who personally faced racial discrimination.

The student “should be treated as an individual based on his experiences — not based on race,” he added.

He also noted that the judgment did not address the consideration of race in military academies. The Biden administration has warned that an affirmative action curbing a judgment could harm the U.S. military, which relies on “well-qualified and diverse officers” educated at military academies like West Point and civilian universities.

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The ruling could have ramifications beyond higher education, including K-12 schools, and puts more pressure on colleges to come up with workable race-neutral programs that foster racial diversity. As similar arguments are made under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination, the decision could lead to future challenges to racial diversity programs used by employers.

In a 2003 ruling, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that affirmative action plans would no longer be required by 2028.

Conservative Justice Brett Kavanagh, in a unanimous opinion, said Thursday’s ruling would first apply to those starting college in 2028 and that the decision did not conflict with the 2003 ruling.

Affirmative action, introduced to address historical discrimination, has been a contentious issue for years, critical to fostering diversity by academic institutions and corporate America, and condemned by conservatives, as opposed to the notion that racial equality is the treatment of all races. The same.

Both challenges were brought by the group Students for Fair Admissions, led by conservative activist Ed Bloom.

“The polarizing, stigmatizing and unfair jurisprudence that has allowed colleges and universities to use a student’s race and ethnicity as a factor in accepting or rejecting students is rejected,” he said in a statement.

The legal debate that led to the latest ruling was left unresolved by a landmark 1978 Supreme Court ruling in which the justices banned racial segregation but opened the door to some notions of race. That later led to the 2003 Grueter ruling, which again allowed for some affirmative action programs.

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In 2016, the Supreme Court’s last ruling on affirmative action, the justices upheld the admissions policy at the University of Texas at Austin in a 4-3 vote, with conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, now retired, casting the deciding vote. .

The court shifted to the right after then-President Donald Trump appointed three conservative justices. Jackson’s appointment by President Joe Biden did not change the court’s ideological balance, as he replaced fellow liberal Justice Stephen Breyer. Because Jackson served on Harvard’s Board of Overseers during the case, he recused himself from the case and participated only in the North Carolina dispute.

Bloom’s group argued that considering race in college admissions was illegal under Title VI and the Constitution. They said UNC’s admissions policy discriminated against white and Asian applicants, and Harvard’s policy discriminated against Asians. In both cases, lower courts ruled in favor of the universities.

In defending their policies, universities and their supporters — including the Biden administration, civil rights groups, businesses and former military leaders — have argued that excluding someone based on race is entirely separate from seeking diversity on campus. Universities say race is a factor considered as part of a broader individual analysis of each applicant.

UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said, “The university is committed to bringing together talented students with diverse perspectives and life experiences, and to continuing to provide a high-quality education at an affordable cost to the people of North Carolina and beyond.”

Supporters of affirmative action said race-neutral policies aimed at achieving diversity would often fail, leading to a decline in black and Hispanic enrollment. Opponents point to examples in the nine states that have already banned the practice as evidence that race is not a necessary consideration.

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