Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Affirmative Action Case

Adam Liptak, New York Times, February 21, 2012

The Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to hear a major case on affirmative action in higher education, adding another potential blockbuster to a docket already studded with them.

The court’s decision in the new case holds the potential to undo an accommodation reached in the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 decision in 2003 in Grutter v. Bollinger: that public colleges and universities could not use a point system to boost minority enrollment but could take race into account in vaguer way to ensure academic diversity.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who wrote the majority opinion in Grutter, said the accommodation was meant to last 25 years.

The court’s membership has changed since 2003, most notably for these purposes with the appointment of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who replaced Justice O’Connor in 2006. Justice Alito has voted with the court’s more conservative justices in decisions hostile to the use of racial classifications by the government.

“There thus seem five votes—Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito—to overrule Grutter and hold that affirmative action programs are unconstitutional,” Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at the University of California, Irvine, wrote in a recent book, “The Conservative Assault on the Constitution.”

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The new case, Fisher v. Texas, No. 11-345, was brought by Abigail Fisher, a white student who said she was denied admission to the University of Texas because of her race. The case has idiosyncrasies that may limit its reach, but it also has the potential to eliminate diversity as a rationale sufficient to justify any use of race in admissions decisions.

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Justice Elena Kagan disqualified herself from hearing the case, presumably because she had worked on it as solicitor general. Arguments in the case will be heard during the court’s next term, which starts in October.

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