WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court announced Monday that it will decide whether the use of race in the admissions process at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina violates civil rights law and the Constitution, reviving a controversial legal debate over affirmative action that has been years in the making.
The decision to hear the two cases raises the controversial question of whether colleges may consider race admitting students to the high court for the first time since 2016. Harvard acknowledges considering race in its admissions process but says it does so as one of several factors, an approach that is consistent with the current legal standard.
By accepting the blockbuster case, the justices are adding yet another polarizing debate to a docket already littered with culture war issues. Much of the court’s current mandate has been defined by fights against abortion in Texas and Mississippi, gun regulations in new york and battles related to COVID-19, including this month’s decision to block vaccine or testing requirements from the Biden administration about big business.
The high court did not say when it will consider the affirmative action lawsuits, but given the number of cases already in the queue this year, it is highly likely that the justices will not take up the matter until their next term, which begins in October.
“The Supreme Court’s decision to review the unanimous decisions of lower federal courts jeopardizes 40 years of legal precedent that give colleges and universities the freedom and flexibility to create diverse campus communities,” said University of Harvard, Lawrence Bacow. “Harvard will continue to vigorously defend its admissions practices.”
Universities like Harvard have relied on previous Supreme Court decisions that allow them to consider race as a factor in their admissions process. The high court has ruled that schools have an interest in promoting a diverse student body.
UNC-Chapel Hill spokeswoman Beth Keith said the university’s process is “consistent with long-standing Supreme Court precedent and allows for a deliberate and thoughtful assessment of each student.”
The lawsuits were brought by an anti-affirmative action group called Students for Fair Admissions, the brainchild of conservative legal strategist Edward Blum. The group claimed that Harvard University discriminates against Asian Americans students in their admissions to increase black and Hispanic enrollment.
That same group filed a follow-up case in high court in November, this time against the University of North Carolina, a public university. The Harvard case alleges violation of a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race in programs that receive federal funds. In the North Carolina case, the group alleges that the school’s policies violate the 14th Amendment law’s equal treatment guarantee.
“We hope the justices will end the use of race as an admissions factor at Harvard, UNC and all colleges and universities,” Blum said. “The cornerstone of our nation’s civil rights laws is the principle that an individual’s race should not be used to help or harm them in their life’s endeavors.”
Affirmative action policies in college admissions have been a goal of conservatives for decades, but many of those policies have been upheld by a series of Supreme Court decisions dating back to 1978. In 2016, the court upheld the use of racial preferences in university of texas admissions in Austin, stating that “considerable deference is due to a university” that wants to promote the diversity of its student body.
But that 4-3 decision was written by Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court’s only swing vote, who retired in 2018. He was succeeded by the more conservative Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Since then, Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett, another conservative, also joined the court, giving opponents of affirmative action renewed hope of a reversal.
Attorneys for Students for Fair Admissions argued that Asian-American applicants to Harvard were victimized by earning lower “personal grades” than other racial or ethnic minorities. Those grades are intended to help create a diverse campus by focusing on characteristics other than academics, extracurricular activities, sports, and legacy connections.
Based on established precedent, to achieve the educational benefits that come from a diverse student body, colleges may consider race as one factor among many in a full, individualized evaluation of each applicant’s background, experiences, and potential contributions. to campus life. The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston ruled in 2020 that Harvard uses race as one of several factors.
A federal district court ruled in favor of the University of North Carolina in that separate case in October. Blum’s group appealed both to the still-undecided Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, and to the Supreme Court.
The court paused in the Harvard case in June, inviting the Biden administration to file a brief even though the federal government is not a party to the lawsuit. Unsurprisingly, the administration argued against hearing the case in papers filed in early December and urged the court to abide by its earlier affirmative action decisions.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism