Supreme Court’s Landmark Affirmative Action Decision Strikes Down Raced-Based Admissions
In Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard College and SFFA v. University of North Carolina, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the college admissions programs of Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. The Court held that the raced-based policies violated the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.
Facts of the Case
Both cases involve long-running disputes brought by Students for Fair Admissions, whose mission is to “restore colorblind principles to our nation’s schools, colleges and universities.” In the Harvard case, the group alleged that the university’s admissions policy discriminates against Asian American applicants, putting them at a disadvantage as compared to white, black, or Hispanic applicants. In the UNC case, Students for Fair Admissions alleged that the university’s consideration of race in its admissions process runs afoul of both Title VI and the 14th Amendment’sequal protection guarantees (which apply given UNC’s status as a public institution).
In both cases, the lower courts upheld the admissions policies, and Students for Fair Admissions appealed. In granting certiorari, the Supreme Court agreed to consider whether it should overrule its decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003) and find that institutions of higher education can no longer use race as a factor in admissions. In the Grutter, the Court held that the University of Michigan Law School’s race-sensitive admissions program was narrowly tailored because the consideration of race was merely one factor in the decision-making process and individualized consideration was given to each applicant.
Supreme Court’s Decision
By a vote of 6-3, the Supreme Court held that Harvard’s and UNC’s admissions programs violate the Equal Protection Clause. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote on behalf of the majority.
In reaching its decision, the Court emphasized that 20 years have passed since Grutter was decided, with “no end to race-based college admissions in sight.” It further noted that the Court has permitted race-based college admissions “only within the confines of narrow restrictions: such admissions programs must comply with strict scrutiny, may never use race as a stereotype or negative, and must—at some point—end.” It went on to conclude that because the admissions systems employed by both universities fail each of these criteria, they must be invalidated.
The Supreme Court went on to find that Harvard and UNC fail to operate their race-based admissions programs in a manner that is “sufficiently measurable to permit judicial [review]” under the rubric of strict scrutiny. Chief Justice Roberts further emphasized that “‘[c]lassifying and assigning’ students based on their race ‘requires more than … an amorphous end to justify it.’”
The Court also concluded that the admissions systems fail to comply with the Equal Protection Clause’s twin commands that race may never be used as a “negative” and that it may not operate as a stereotype. “College admissions are zero-sum. A benefit provided to some applicants but not to others necessarily advantages the former group at the expense of the latter,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote.
The Court similarly found that the admissions programs rely on racial stereotyping, which is also prohibited under the Equal Protection Clause. “[W]hen a university admits students on the basis of race, it engages in the offensive and demeaning assumption that [students] of a particular race, because of their race, think alike —at the very least alike in the sense of being different from nonminority students (internal citations omitted),” Chief Justice Roberts wrote.
Finally, the Court emphasized that nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life, so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university.
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Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
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