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US Supreme Court Strikes Down Affirmative Action Programs at UNC and Harvard

In a significant victory for conservative activists, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday to strike down affirmative action programs at the University of North Carolina (UNC) and Harvard University. This ruling is likely to bring an end to the systematic consideration of race in the admissions process.

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Supreme Court Strikes Down Affirmative Action

The Supreme court determined that both programs violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, rendering them unlawful. The UNC case resulted in a 6-3 vote, while the Harvard case had a 6-2 vote due to liberal Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s recusal.

This decision effectively overturns the 2003 ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger, where the Supreme court allowed the consideration of race in admissions, citing the universities’ interest in maintaining diverse campuses. It also disregards decades of precedent, including a 1978 ruling that upheld limited consideration of race to combat historical discrimination against Black individuals and other minorities.

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The Supreme Court held a special sitting on September 30, 2022, for the formal investiture ceremony of Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff attended as guests of the Court. On June 30, 2022, Justice Jackson took the oaths of office to become the 104th Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Members of the Supreme Court in the Justices’ Conference Room prior to the investiture ceremony. From left to right: Associate Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Neil M. Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, and Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Associate Justices Ketanji Brown Jackson, Samuel A. Alito, Jr., Elena Kagan, and Brett M. Kavanaugh. Credit: Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

Chief Justice John Roberts, in the majority opinion, did not explicitly state that the previous precedents were overruled. However, conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, the second Black justice in the court’s history, stated in a concurring opinion that the Grutter case was essentially overruled.

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Roberts highlighted that both programs lacked focused and measurable objectives that justified the use of race. He emphasized that they inevitably employed race in a negative manner, involved racial stereotyping, and lacked meaningful end points.

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It is important to note that the Supreme court’s ruling does not address the consideration of race in military academies. The Biden administration expressed concerns that limiting affirmative action would have negative implications for the U.S. military, which relies on well-qualified and diverse officers from institutions like West Point and civilian universities.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman on the Supreme court, dissented, stating that the ruling was “truly a tragedy for us all.” Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic justice, criticized the court for rolling back decades of precedent and significant progress.

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FILE PHOTO: Ketanji Brown Jackson, nominated to be a U.S. Circuit Judge for the District of Columbia Circuit, testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on pending judicial nominations on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 28, 2021. Tom Williams/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

This ruling aligns with the Supreme court’s conservative majority of 6-3 and reflects the long-standing objectives of conservative legal activists. It follows the landmark 2022 ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, the decision that safeguarded the right to abortion since 1973.

The decision deals a severe blow to highly selective universities that argue the consideration of race is crucial for achieving diverse student bodies. The impact will be felt most strongly by a small number of schools with fiercely competitive admissions processes. These institutions predict a significant decline in minority student enrollment and will need to explore alternative race-neutral plans to counteract this effect. However, the majority of colleges, which accept a vast majority of applicants, will not be as affected.

Prominent universities such as Yale, Brown, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College are among dozens of institutions that consider race in their admissions policies.

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Chief Justice Roberts left room for colleges to consider discussions of race in individual student applications, using instances of personal encounters with racial discrimination as examples. He emphasized that the treatment of students should be based on their experiences as individuals rather than their race.

This ruling is expected to have far-reaching implications beyond higher education, potentially impacting K-12 schools as well. It places increased pressure on colleges to develop viable race-neutral programs that foster racial diversity. Furthermore, the decision could lead to future challenges to racial diversity programs in employment, citing arguments under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in the workplace.

In the 2003 ruling, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor predicted that affirmative action programs would no longer be necessary by 2028. The court’s decision accelerates this timeline by five years.

Affirmative action has long been a contentious issue, with educational institutions and corporate America advocating its importance in promoting diversity, while conservatives argue that it conflicts with the principle of treating all races equally.

The challenges to UNC and Harvard’s affirmative action policies were brought forth by a group called Students for Fair Admissions, led by conservative activist Ed Blum.

The legal debate surrounding affirmative action remained unresolved after a fragmented Supreme Court ruling in 1978, which banned racial quotas but allowed some consideration of race. This ruling paved the way for the 2003 Grutter decision, which reluctantly permitted some affirmative action programs.

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In 2016, the Supreme Court narrowly upheld the admissions policy at the University of Texas at Austin in a 4-3 vote, with the deciding vote cast by conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has since retired.

The Supreme court’s ideological balance shifted to the right following three conservative justices appointed by former President Donald Trump. President Joe Biden’s appointment of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson did not alter this balance, as she replaced fellow liberal Justice Stephen Breyer. Jackson recused herself from the Harvard case due to her prior involvement with Harvard’s board of overseers during the litigation.

The challenges brought by Ed Blum’s group argued that considering race in college admissions violated both Title VI and the Constitution. They contended that UNC’s admissions policy discriminated against white and Asian applicants, and Harvard’s policy discriminated against Asians. Lower courts had previously ruled in favor of the universities.

WASHINGTON, DC – OCTOBER 20: Edward Blum, the affirmative action opponent behind the lawsuit challenging Harvard University’s consideration of race in student admissions, stands for a portrait at the Supreme Court of the United States in Washington, DC on October 20, 2022. (Photo by Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)

In defense of their policies, the universities and their supporters, including the Biden administration, civil rights groups, businesses, and former military leaders, argued that excluding individuals based on race differed fundamentally from seeking campus diversity. The universities maintained that race was just one factor considered as part of a comprehensive individualized analysis of each applicant.

Supporters of affirmative action argue that race-neutral policies aimed at achieving diversity often fall short, resulting in declines in Black and Hispanic enrollment. They point to examples in the nine states that already prohibit affirmative action as evidence that considering race is essential.