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Supreme Court Justices Rule On Affirmative Action Case


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne. The U.S. Supreme Court sent back to an appeals court, a high-profile affirmative action case this morning. In a seven to one decision, the country's highest court effectively told the lower court to go back and do it right. For more, we have NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg at the Supreme Court. And, Nina, what exactly did the court say?

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Well, Renee, remember this case was viewed as conservatives' big shot at reversing previous Supreme Court rulings that allowed affirmative action in higher education, and they won a victory but a very partial victory. The court sliced the salami way thinner than anybody thought, and it said that, yes, universities do get deference when they decide that they want to have diversity in education. But that they need to be looked at with a really strict eye when they designed the programs for achieving that goal, and that here the University of Texas' plan had to go back to the lower courts to be viewed with more of a gimlet eye to see whether it is narrowly tailored to achieve the goal of racial and ethnic diversity in higher education.

And let's remember here that the University of Texas has essentially two programs to achieve diversity. The big one provides that anybody who graduates in the top 10 percent of his or her class in Texas is entitled to admission to the University of Texas. And because schools are, for the most part, quite segregated along racial and ethnic lines in Texas that achieves a fairly high degree of integration to begin with. But the university claimed that it didn't get enough diversity of all different kinds, and it had a second program to consider race as one of many factors.

And the court said we need to - you to go back to the lower courts and prove that using race as any factor that you did that with the narrowest - in the narrowest way possible. That's what the court said, and the vote was seven to one.

MONTAGNE: And the implications of this - well, it's a ruling, but, you know, it's sort of a way - it's in a way a punt, I mean, of sending this back to the lower courts. What does it mean then?

TOTENBERG: Well, it means that the lower is going to have to see whether they - the university is using the narrowest means possible when it looks at race as one of many factors. And the dissenter, Justice Ginsberg, said they already proved that, but this is an essential - essentially a compromise it looks like between the court's conservatives and liberals and Justice Kennedy, who is the middle person here, saying let's slice this salami even thinner. We're sending this back to the lower court to see whether race was in fact - as the University of Texas claimed - a factor of a factor or whether race was somehow the determining factor in deciding who gets into the University of Texas.

MONTAGNE: Well, if we can get just a thumbnail of what the specifics of this case - specifics are in this case.

TOTENBERG: It's hard to have a thumbnail, but...


TOTENBERG: ...the university has two systems for determining who qualifies in the university. One system is grades, board scores, things like that. That's - and that is the larger determining factor, but there is something called the personal achievement index, and that is where race is one of many factors, the university says, for admission. And that is combined to a much lesser extent - I think it's one-fifth - to determine who gets admitted.

MONTAGNE: And so, well, I think I'm sorry to say this. I think we're running out of time. So we'll hear more about this later today. I'm sure. NPR's Nina Totenberg, thanks very much.

TOTENBERG: Thank you, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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