The Supreme Court ruled that race-conscious admission policies of Harvard College and the University of North Carolina violate the Constitution, bringing an end to affirmative action in higher education in a decision that will reverberate across campuses nationwide.
The court ruled 6-3 along ideological lines in the University of North Carolina case, and 6-2 in the Harvard dispute, as Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson recused herself. Chief Justice John Roberts authored the majority opinion, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.
Roberts wrote that both programs “lack sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race, unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involve racial stereotyping, and lack meaningful end points.”
The ruling effectively overturned the 2003 ruling Grutter v. Bollinger, in which the court said race could be considered as a factor in the admissions process because universities had a compelling interest in maintaining diverse campuses.
The decision was welcomed by prominent conservatives, such as presidential candidate Donald Trump, who expressed favoring people based on merit rather than race in college admissions. Democrats including President Biden criticized the decision by calling it a setback. He reiterated that “diversity is our strength.”
Affirmative action is a term that refers to policies that take into account factors such as race, gender, or ethnicity to increase opportunities for historically disadvantaged groups. It was first introduced by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 as an executive order mandating that federal contractors “take affirmative action” to ensure applicants were treated equally.
The court’s ruling affects more than 1,000 colleges and universities that receive federal funding and have some form of race-conscious admissions. Some states, such as California and Texas, have already banned affirmative action in public universities through voter initiatives or legislation. Other states, such as Michigan and Florida, have adopted alternative methods to achieve diversity, such as guaranteeing admission to top high school graduates or using socioeconomic factors instead of race.
The court’s decision came in two cases brought by conservative groups that challenged the use of race in admissions at Harvard and UNC. The plaintiffs argued that the programs discriminated against Asian American and white applicants and violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
Harvard and UNC defended their policies as narrowly tailored and necessary to achieve the educational benefits of diversity. They also denied any intentional discrimination or racial quotas.
The lower courts sided with the universities, finding that their programs met the legal standards set by the Supreme Court in previous cases. But the high court reversed those rulings and sent the cases back to the lower courts for further proceedings.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the majority opinion was “not grounded in law or fact and contravenes the vision of equality embodied in the 14th Amendment.”
“Today, this Court stands in the way and rolls back decades of precedent and momentous progress. It holds that race can no longer be used in a limited way in college admissions to achieve such critical benefits,” she wrote. “In so holding, the Court cements a superficial rule of colorblindness as a constitutional principle in an endemically segregated society where race has always mattered and continues to matter.”
Sotomayor was joined by Justice Elena Kagan and Jackson, who is the first Black woman to serve on the court.
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