Supreme Court Sends Equal Opportunity Case Back to Lower Court

This was originally posted by Tyler Lewis on the blog of The Leadership Conference.

Amicus Brief in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin

The Equal Justice Society, the law firm of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, and the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, Berkeley, filed an amicus brief in August 2012 on behalf of 13 of the nation’s leading social scientists in the case of Abigail Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, in which the Supreme Court issued an opinion on today. Our brief provided research offering a deeper understanding of how a diverse educational environment benefits White students as well as students of color, and why diversity benefits society as a whole, even more than previously understood. The brief cites studies, provided to the Supreme Court for the first time, showing that race-conscious admissions policies like that used by the University of Texas at Austin result in a more diverse student body, which is essential to produce leaders able to compete in the 21st century global marketplace. The brief also explains how structural barriers inhibit educational opportunity. Learn more about our brief.

In a (7-1) decision authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed that universities may consider racial and ethnic diversity as one factor among many in a carefully crafted admissions policy.

Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy wrote that “the attainment of a diverse student body…serves values beyond race alone, including enhanced classroom dialogue and the lessening of racial isolation and stereotypes.”

The Court determined, however, that the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals did not sufficiently address the issue of strict scrutiny when it affirmed the district court’s ruling in favor the University of Texas (UT). Consequently, the Court remanded the case back to the 5th Circuit to reconsider the evidence under that standard.

“Today’s decision is an important victory for our nation’s ongoing work to build a more inclusive, diverse America,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “We believe that the University of Texas’ admissions policy is a carefully crafted one that will ultimately be upheld by the Court of Appeals.”

The Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin challenge was brought by a White student who claimed she was denied admission to UT due to an admissions policy that considers race as a factor. UT crafted its admissions process for expanding opportunity to comply with the University of Michigan Law School’s policy that was upheld in Grutter v. Bollinger. In 2011, the 5th Circuit unanimously upheld the constitutionality of UT’s current admissions policy, saying it was consistent with Grutter.

Civil and human rights organizations have long supported equal opportunity initiatives that allow universities to consider, within a group of qualified applicants, factors in addition to test scores in order to create a diverse learning environment. In August 2012, more than 55 leading corporations, more than 35 high-ranking retired military officials, student organizations, prominent social scientists, colleges and universities, small business representatives, states, religious denominations, labor unions, and civil and human rights organizations including The Leadership Conference filed 73 amicus curiae, or friend-of-the-court, briefs in support of UT’s admissions policy.

“The educational benefits of diversity are clear and the Court’s decision reaffirms that it is in our national interest to expand opportunities for everyone,” said Henderson. “[T]oday’s decision makes it clear that it’s time to expand our commitment to diversity in all of our institutions to ensure that we are well-positioned to compete in the diverse economy of the 21st century.”

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