U.S. Supreme Court

SCOTUS strikes down race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard, University of North Carolina

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According to a brief filed by Harvard University, 40% of all U.S. universities take race into account in their admissions processes. Image from Shutterstock.

Citing the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday struck down race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina.

“Eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in his majority opinion, joined by the high court’s five other conservative justices.

“We have permitted race-based admissions only within the confines of narrow restrictions,” Roberts wrote. “University programs must comply with strict scrutiny, they may never use race as a stereotype or negative, and—at some point—they must end. Respondents’ admissions systems—however well intentioned and implemented in good faith—fail each of these criteria.”

Roberts said consideration of race in admissions programs has led to a decrease in Asian American admissions, making race a “negative factor” for the group. Such admissions programs also rely on a “pernicious stereotype” that Black students can bring something to a university that a white person can’t, he said.

Roberts said, however, race could be a consideration if an applicant discusses the impact of race on their life, “be it through discrimination, inspiration or otherwise.”

The decision will have a broad impact. According to a brief filed by Harvard, 40% of all U.S. universities take race into account in their admissions processes.

In a dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the decision “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.”

In another dissent, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said “gulf-sized race-based gaps” in health, wealth and well-being have been “passed down to the present day through the generations.” The disparities justify the holistic, race-based admission programs, she said.

The group challenging the programs, Students for Fair Admissions, contended that the program at Harvard violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination in programs receiving federal financial assistance. The group argued that the program at the University of North Carolina, which is a public university, violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

The Supreme Court said in a footnote that discrimination that violates the equal protection clause also violates Title VI.

ABA President Deborah Enix-Ross commented on the decision in a June 29 statement.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the admissions programs at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment,” Enix-Ross said. “The ABA has a long history of supporting affirmative action and the consideration of race as one of many factors in law school admissions.

“We believe it is imperative that colleges, universities and state legislatures find alternative ways to create a diverse and talented student body. Law schools are training grounds for lawyers and play an important role to ensure a diverse bench and bar, which are critical to minimizing implicit bias and inspiring greater public faith in the rule of law.”

The ABA had urged the Supreme Court to uphold its 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, which held that colleges and universities can use race as one factor in admissions decisions.

According to tweets by Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, the Supreme Court decision doesn’t expressly overrule Grutter or bar all race-based affirmative action, but it severely limits how universities can consider race in admissions.

The Law School Admission Council released a statement calling the decision “deeply disappointing.”

“We will continue our mission of expanding access to legal education through every means available,” the statement said. “We will support our member law schools in their efforts to advance law and justice through holistic admission processes that consider the whole candidate.”

The cases are Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina and Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College.

See also:

ABAJournal.com: “Supreme Court ready to tackle free speech, affirmative action and election law in new term”

ABAJournal.com: “An ‘ominous development’ for race-conscious college admissions? Supreme Court accepts 2 challenges”

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