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Politics

U.S. Supreme Court Passes the Buck on Affirmative Action Hot Potato

June 23, 2013 - 6:00pm

In a suprisingly near-unanimous ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court has refrained from pronouncing on the controversial race-based admissions policies of the University of Texas at Austin (UT), choosing instead to return the case to a lower appeals court for a final decision.

The mere recitation of a benign or legitimate purpose for a racial classification is entitled to little or no weight, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the opinion of the court, delivered on behalf of himself and Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, and Sonia Sotomayor. Strict scrutiny does not permit a court to accept a schools 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.

The justices found that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit applied the wrong legal standard when judging the constitutionality of UT's admissions standards. Under the 14th Amendment, government entities can only discriminate on the basis of race when there is a compelling state interest, and when the discrimination is narrowly tailored and the least restrictive possible means for meeting that interest. This standard is called strict scrutiny, and the justices faulted the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit for not applying it.

The appeals court had upheld the judgment of the trial court, which found in favor of the school.

Since 2004, UT admits to its school all applicants who graduate high school in the top 10 percent of their class, regardless of their race; all other applicants are admitted on the basis of several academic and other considerations, including their race. In previous affirmative action rulings, the Supreme Court has ruled that the educational benefits of having a diverse student body is a compelling enough reason for state schools to consider race as one of several factors when deciding whether to admit an applicant, so long as schools do not impose rigid race quotas or assign race-based point values when ranking applications on their worthiness.

Abigail Fisher, a white woman, sued UT, alleging racial discrimination after she was denied admission in 2008. (She has since received her bachelor's degree from Louisiana State University.)

This might not be the last the justices hear of the case. After the 5th Circuit rehears the case, its new ruling could be appealed to the high court.

Court watchers and legal scholars had given great attention to the case, because the makeup of the Supreme Court is slightly more conservative than it was in 2003, even though right-of-center Reagan appointee Sandra Day O'Connor wrote the opinions that defined the court's views on affirmative action.

In his concurring opinion, Thomas (an African-American) wrote that he would overturn those precedents.

In this case ... most blacks and Hispanics attending the university were admitted without discrimination under the Top Ten Percent plan, but no one can distinguish those students from the ones whose race played a role in their admission, he wrote. Although cloaked in good intentions, the universitys racial tinkering harms the very people it claims to be helping.

Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from hearing the case because of her previous dealings with the case when she was Obama's solicitor general.

Reach Eric Giunta at egiunta@sunshinestatenews.com or at 954-235-9116.

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