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Supreme Ct. Remands Affirmative Action Case

By Aditi Mukherji, JD | Last updated on

The Supreme Court on Monday allowed affirmative action to survive in college admissions but imposed a tough legal standard, ruling that schools must prove there are "no workable race-neutral alternative" to achieve diversity on campus.

The Court, in a 7-1 vote with Justice Elena Kagan not taking part, ruled that a federal appeals court did not apply the correct legal standard -- called strict scrutiny -- in deciding whether the University of Texas at Austin's admissions policy violated the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equal protection.

The ruling may not be a sweeping pronouncement on the future of affirmative action, but it amounts to a warning to colleges across the nation that courts will treat race-conscious admissions policies with a high degree of skepticism, reports NBC News.

Fisher v. University of Texas

The case was brought by Abigail Fisher, a white woman who applied to the University of Texas in 2008 and was denied. She claimed that her constitutional rights, along with federal civil rights laws, were violated.

The University of Texas and its supporters contended that universities must have the flexibility to consider race to ensure diversity. Opponents argued it's time to eliminate racial preferences, which they say are unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court ruled that the lower court incorrectly "presumed that the school had acted in good faith" and required Fisher to show otherwise. Instead, the appeals court should have reviewed the University of Texas' admissions policy to the "demanding burden of strict scrutiny."

This means that when the case returns to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, the university will need to show its admissions plan is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest.

Strict scrutiny is the highest level of judicial scrutiny. Laws reviewed under strict scrutiny are often struck down.

Potential Impact

Though the decision was favorable to Fisher, civil rights advocates are breathing a sigh of relief, reports NBC News.

"There was the potential that the justices would issue a really major ruling headed in a conservative direction, limiting or eliminating affirmative action," Tom Goldstein, the publisher of SCOTUSblog, said on MSNBC. "Instead the justices did something more modest."

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, part of the liberal wing of the court, was the lone dissenter. Justice Elena Kagan, who worked on the issue while she was solicitor general under President Barack Obama, recused herself from the case.

The Supreme Court avoided making a decision on whether to overturn 2003's Grutter v. Bollinger ruling, written by the now-retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, that let universities use race in admissions as one factor among others that make particular applicants more desirable.

The decision is not the Court's final word on affirmative action. It has agreed to take a case in its next term about whether voters can ban affirmative action in their states.

For parents and student across the country, know that this decision limits the use of affirmative action in higher education but doesn't strike its use down completely.

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