High court punts on affirmative action

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court has sent a Texas case on race-based college admissions back to a lower court for another look.

The court’s 7-1 decision Monday leaves unsettled many of the basic questions about the continued use of race as a factor in college admissions.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the court, said a federal appeals court needs to subject the University of Texas admission plan to the highest level of judicial scrutiny.

The compromise ruling throws out the decision by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the Texas admission plan.

Kennedy said the appeals court did not test the Texas plan under the most exacting level of judicial review.

He said such a test is required by the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Grutter v. Michigan upholding affirmative action in higher education.

“As the Court said in Grutter, it remains at all times the university’s obligation to demonstrate, and the judiciary’s obligation to determine, that admissions processes ‘ensure that each applicant is evaluated as an individual and not in a way that makes an applicant’s race or ethnicity the defining feature of his or her application,”’ Kennedy said.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the lone dissenter. “In my view, the courts below adhered to this court’s pathmarking decisions and there is no need for a second look,” Ginsburg said in a dissent she read aloud.

Justice Clarence Thomas, alone on the court, said he would have overturned the high court’s 2003 ruling.

Justice Elena Kagan stayed out of the case, presumably because she had some contact with it at an earlier stage when she worked in the Justice Department.

Abigail Fisher, a white Texan, sued the university after she was denied a spot in 2008. She has since received her undergraduate degree from Louisiana State University.

The challenge to the Texas plan gained traction in part because the makeup of the court has changed since the last time the justices ruled on affirmative action in higher education in 2003. Then, Justice Sandra O’Connor wrote the majority opinion that held that colleges and universities can use race in their quest for diverse student bodies.

O’Connor retired in 2006, and her replacement, Justice Samuel Alito, has shown himself to be more skeptical of considerations of race in education.

Texas uses race as one among many factors in admitting about a quarter of the university’s incoming freshmen. The school gives the bulk of the slots to Texans admitted based on their high school class rank, without regard to race. It automatically offers about three-quarters of its spots to graduates in the top 10 percent of their Texas high schools, under a 1990s state law signed by then-Gov. George W. Bush. Since then the admissions program has been changed so that now only the top 8 percent gain automatic admission.

Race is a factor in filling out the rest of the incoming class. More than 8 in 10 African-American and Latino students who enrolled at the flagship campus in Austin in 2011 were automatically admitted, according to university statistics.

In all, black and Hispanic students made up more than a quarter of the incoming freshmen class. White students constituted less than half the entering class when students with Asian backgrounds and other minorities were added in.

The university said the extra measure of diversity it gets from the slots outside automatic admission is crucial because too many of its classrooms have only token minority representation, at best. At the same time, Texas argued that race is one of many factors considered and that whether race played the key role in any applicant’s case was impossible to tell.

The Obama administration, roughly half of the Fortune 100 companies and large numbers of public and private colleges that feared a broad ruling against affirmative action backed the Texas program. Among the benefits of affirmative action, the administration said, is that it creates a pipeline for a diverse officer corps that it called “essential to the military’s operational readiness.” In 2003, the court cited the importance of a similar message from military leaders.

More in Local News

Suspect sought in two Everett bank robberies

He’s described as 5-foot-10 to 6-foot-1, with dark hair and a goatee, and may have a neck tattoo.

Jogger unharmed after fending off attacker in Edmonds

Police released video of a man they believe to be the attacker.

Two missing men found, one alive and one dead

The man found alive was found in an apartment across the hallway and taken to a hospital.

Darrington School Board dealing with upheavals

The crux of the controversy seems to be the superintendent’s job.

Alaska Airlines has selected destinations for new service from Paine Field. (Alaska Airlines)
Alaska Airlines will fly from Everett to 8 West Coast cities

Two destinations that didn’t make the list were Spokane and Hawaii.

Three teens arrested for Marysville school vandalism

Windows were broken and a trash bin was on fire Sunday night at a Marysville middle school.

Langley mayor threatens newspaper with lawsuit

The mayor threatened to sue the paper over claims he withheld public records disclosure information.

Divers called to recover body after train hits pedestrian

The accident was reported by a BNSF crew near Woods Creek in Monroe.

Katharine Graham, then CEO and chairwoman of the board of The Washington Post Co., looks over a copy of The Daily Herald with Larry Hanson, then The Herald’s publisher, during her visit to Everett on Sept. 20, 1984. The Washington Post Co. owned The Herald from 1978 until 2013. (Herald archives)
A local connection to history

Retired Herald publisher Larry Hanson remembers The Post’s Katharine Graham, who visited several times.

Most Read