S. E. Williams
In a 6-3 decision on Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the race-conscious admissions policies used by Harvard and the University of North Carolina. The court determined the programs violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The result, race cannot be a factor in considering college applications. With this decision, the court’s majority literally struck down affirmative action in college admissions.
In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts explained that college admission programs can consider race only to allow an applicant to explain how their race influenced their character in a way that would have a concrete effect on the university. Continuing the opinion, he stressed that a student “must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual, not on the basis of race.”
According to scotusblog.com in this ruling the majority justices, “effectively, though not explicitly,” overturned the court’s 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, that upheld the University of Michigan Law School’s consideration of race “as one factor among many, in an effort to assemble a student body that is diverse in ways broader than race.”
It should come as no surprise that Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett joined the Roberts opinion.
Dissenting Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who has previously referred to herself as “the perfect affirmative action baby” an ode to her Princeton and Yale Law School education, wrote in a dissenting opinion that was joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson, how the court’s majority decision effectively rolled “back decades of precedent and momentous progress” and in doing so cemented what she identified as “a superficial rule of colorblindness as a constitutional principle in an endemically segregated society.”
The plaintiffs in this case successfully peeled away the role race has played in college admissions over the years. In the North Carolina and Harvard cases, plaintiffs asked the justices to overrule the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s majority decision in Grutter reaffirmed that “student body diversity is a compelling state interest that can justify the use of race in university admissions,” but she also warned that “race-conscious admissions policies should not last forever. In 25 years,” she suggested, “the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest” in diversity.
After just eleven years however, a group called Students for Fair Admissions filed the North Carolina and Harvard cases in federal court. Conservative activist Edward Blum founded the group. Blum is also responsible for spearheading a challenge to the admissions policy at the University of Texas at Austin as well as Shelby County v. Holder, the 2013 case that stripped power from the Voting Rights Act.
Thursday’s majority decision did however leave one door open, at least for now, related to service academies like the U.S. Naval Academy and West Point. These academies can continue to use race-conscious admissions programs.
In a friend of the court brief on behalf of Harvard and UNC, the Biden administration emphasized the opinions of senior military leaders who believe in the importance of having a diverse officer corps. According to the administration, this requires the consideration of race for admissions to the service academies.
Because the service academies did not participate in the Harvard and UNC cases, the lower courts did not weigh in on this consideration. As such, in a footnote to his majority opinion, Roberts noted the high court did not weigh in on the issue, “in light of the potentially distinct interests that military academies may present.”