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Supreme Court Sends Affirmative Action Case Back To Lower Court

Abigail Noel Fisher, who challenged a racial component to University of Texas at Austin's admissions policy, speaks to the media outside the U.S. Supreme Court building during oral in the case in October.
Mark Wilson
Getty Images
Abigail Noel Fisher, who challenged a racial component to University of Texas at Austin's admissions policy, speaks to the media outside the U.S. Supreme Court building during oral in the case in October.

One of the Supreme Court's most anticipated cases of its current term — a challenge to the University of Texas' affirmative action admissions process — has ended with a ruling that does not revisit the fundamental issue of whether such programs discriminate against whites.

In a 7-1 ruling, the high court "vacated and remanded" an earlier decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which had upheld the university's program. (Justice Elena Kagan recused herself because when she was a lawyer at the Justice Department she had been involved in the case.)

The case originated with a young woman named Abigail Fisher. She and another student, who later withdrew as a plaintiff, say they were denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin because of their race. Specifically, since Fisher failed to meet the school's academic requirements for automatic admission, her application was evaluated based on a number of other factors, including race.

The justices ruled Monday that the lower court "did not hold the university to the demanding burden of strict scrutiny articulated" in an earlier Supreme Court ruling — 2003's Grutter v. Bollinger.So, the justices sent the case back to the lower court. Essentially, the court did not change current law.

In the landmark 1978 decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke,the Supreme Court outlawed minority quotas, ruling the University of California at Davis Medical School's admission process unconstitutional for setting aside a number of seats for various minority groups.

Update at 8:15 p.m. ET. Justice Dept. Statement:

Both businesses and the federal government have a "vital interest" in hiring from a well-qualified and diverse poll of graduates, Attorney General Eric Holder says. He also addressed the Supreme Court's decision in a statement released Monday:

"The University of Texas's implementation of its admissions program will now be reevaluated by the lower courts. The Department is committed to working with colleges and universities around the country to find ways to promote educational diversity that are consistent with the law."

Update at 11:15 a.m. ET. Justices "Sliced The Salami" Very Thinly:

On Morning Edition moments ago, NPR's Nina Totenberg said the justices had "sliced the salami way thinner than anyone thought" they would. The ruling, she added, was "essentially a compromise between the court's conservatives and liberals and Justice Kennedy." In her words, the justices basically said that "we're sending it back to the lower court to see whether race was a factor of a factor or whether it was somehow the determining factor of deciding who gets into the University of Texas." If the lower court now decides race was a "determining factor," that could mean the affirmative action program won't stand the Grutter test.

For much more background:

-- Supreme Court To Look At Who Is A 'Supervisor' In Harassment Cases

-- Force Behind Race-Law Rollback Efforts Talks Voting Rights Case

Update at 11:05 a.m. ET. Key Passages From The Ruling:

"Under Grutter, strict scrutiny must be applied to any admissions program using racial categories or classifications. A court may give some deference to a university's 'judgment that such diversity is essential to its educational mission,' 539 U. S., at 328, provided that diversity is not defined as mere racial balancing and there is a reasoned, principled explanation for the academic decision. On this point, the courts below were correct in finding that Grutter calls for deference to the University's experience and expertise about its educational mission. However, once the University has established that its goal of diversity is consistent with strict scrutiny, the University must prove that the means it chose to attain that diversity are narrowly tailored to its goal. On this point, the University receives no deference. Id., at 333. It is at all times the University's obligation to demonstrate, and the Judiciary's obligation to determine, that admissions processes 'ensure that each applicant is evaluated as an individual and not in a way that makes an applicant's race or ethnicity the defining feature of his or her application.' Id., at 337. Narrow tailoring also requires a reviewing court to verify that it is 'necessary' for the university to use race to achieve the educational benefits of diversity. Bakke, supra, at 305. The reviewing court must ultimately be satisfied that no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity.

"Rather than perform this searching examination, the Fifth Circuit held petitioner could challenge only whether the University's decision to use race as an admissions factor 'was made in good faith.' It presumed that the school had acted in good faith and gave petitioner the burden of rebutting that presumption. It thus undertook the narrow tailoring requirement with a 'degree of deference' to the school. These expressions of the controlling standard are at odds with Grutter's command that 'all racial classifications imposed by government 'must be analyzed by a reviewing court under strict scrutiny.' ' "

The decision was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy. The lone dissenting vote was cast by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Update at 10:50 a.m. ET. University Now Has More Difficult Case.

Here's how Huff Post Politics is summing things up:

"The decision is a provisional victory for Abigail Fisher, a white woman who claimed that UT-Austin unconstitutionally discriminated against her after the state's flagship university rejected her application in 2008 under its race-conscious admissions program. UT-Austin will now have a much more difficult job of proving its program constitutional under the standard the Supreme Court clarified on Monday."

Update at 10:45 a.m. ET. "Limited Victory" For Affirmative Action Opponents?

Here's how Bloomberg News is summing up the decision:

"The U.S. Supreme Court told a federal appeals court to give tougher scrutiny to a University of Texas affirmative action program in a limited victory for opponents of racial preferences."

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