A divided federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that a private school in Hawaii can favor Hawaiian natives for admission as a means of helping a downtrodden indigenous population.
The 8-7 decision by a 15-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned an earlier ruling by three of the same judges that the Kamehameha Schools policy amounted to unlawful discrimination.
In Tuesday’s decision, the majority noted that the case was unique because Congress has singled out the plight of native Hawaiians for improvement, just as lawmakers have done with Alaskan natives and American Indians.
The case was brought by a white student excluded because of his race.
Admission to the elite school is first granted to qualified Hawaiian students, and non-Hawaiians may be admitted if there are openings available. Only one in eight eligible applicants is admitted to the school, which serves about 5,400 students at three campuses.
Seven Republican judges opposed the policy; eight Democrats on the court supported it. Three dissenting judges wrote separately that civil rights law prohibits a private school from denying admission because of race.
The Kamehameha School was established under the 1883 will of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop as part of a trust now worth $6.8 billion. The trust subsidizes tuition and is designed to help remedy some of the wrongs done during the U.S.-backed overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom in 1893.
The decision came a day after the Supreme Court suggested during arguments in a different case that it might ban the practice of race-based admissions in public schools, even if the policy was intended to create racial harmony.
But the court that same year also permitted colleges to consider race as part of a “holistic review” of every application.