At US Supreme Court, Affirmative Action Gets Another Look

  on October 09 2012 11:25 AM
Supreme Court Building
U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. Reuters

For the second time in less than a decade, the Supreme Court will on Tuesday weigh whether universities should consider race when deciding which students to admit.

The court will hear an hour of oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas. Abigal Fisher sued the college after being denied admission, charging that she was discriminated against for being white.

“I’m hoping that they’ll completely take race out of the issue in terms of admissions and that everyone will be able to get into any school that they want no matter what race they are but solely based on their merit and if they work hard for it," Fisher told the New York Times.

At issue is a policy under which the University of Texas considers race for a chunk of applicants. The top 10 percent of Texas high school students are automatically admitted, but for students who fail to make the cutoff -- Fisher is one of them -- the university draws on a menu of credentials that includes test scores, high school performance, personal essays and "special circumstance." That final category encompasses race.

Affirmative action at American universities remains a contentious issue, but the Supreme Court ruled in 2003 in favor of diversity. In the 2003 case of Gruttinger v. Bollinger, the court ruled 5-4 in favor of a limited use of race in college admissions. The decision did not endorse more controversial mechanisms like racial quotas, but it did back the authority of colleges to try and mold diverse student bodies.

In an interview with the Washington Post, University of Texas President William Powers said the school's policy emphasized “learning and drawing from and sharing their experiences with people from different backgrounds, and that’s diversity writ large -- geographic diversity, intellectual diversity, ethnic diversity, religious diversity."

That pursuit of a racially diverse student body prevails across much of the academic world. Academic institutions that include the Ivy League schools, the University of California and the Law School Council filed briefs supporting the University of Texas.

But the court's composition has changed since Gruttinger v. Bollinger, imperiling that ruling's legacy. Among the new faces are Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote in a 2007 decision that "the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."

Three of the justices who dissented in the Gruttinger case -- Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas -- remain. Roberts replaced the fourth, former Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.

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