The Supreme Court is setting an election-season review of racial preference in college admissions, agreeing Feb. 21 to consider new limits on the contentious issue of affirmative action programs.
A challenge from a white student who was denied admission to the University of Texas flagship campus will be the high court’s first look at affirmative action in higher education since its 2003 decision endorsing the use of race as a factor.
This time around, a more conservative court could jettison that earlier ruling or at least limit when colleges may take account of race in admissions.
In a term already filled with health care, immigration and political redistricting, the justices won’t hear the affirmative action case until the fall.
But the political calendar will still add drama. Arguments probably will take place in the final days of the presidential election campaign.
A broad ruling in favor of the student, Abigail Fisher, could threaten affirmative action programs at many of the nation’s public and private universities, said Vanderbilt University law professor Brian Fitzpatrick.
A federal appeals court upheld the Texas program at issue, saying it was allowed under the high court’s decision in Grutter vs. Bollinger in 2003 that upheld racial considerations in university admissions at the University of Michigan Law School.
But there have been changes in the Supreme Court since then. For one thing, Justice Samuel Alito appears more hostile to affirmative action than his predecessor, Sandra Day O’Connor.
For another, Justice Elena Kagan, who might be expected to vote with the court’s liberal-leaning justices in support of it, is not taking part in the case.
Kagan’s absence probably is a result of the Justice Department’s participation in the Texas case in the lower courts at a time when she served as the Obama administration’s solicitor general.
Fisher, of Sugar Land, Texas, filed a lawsuit along with another woman when they were denied admission at the university’s Austin campus. They contended the school’s race-conscious policy violated their civil and constitutional rights. By then, the two had enrolled elsewhere.
The other woman has since dropped out of the case. The state has said that Fisher is a Louisiana State University senior whose impending graduation should bring an end to the lawsuit. But the Supreme Court appeared not to buy that argument Tuesday.
The Project on Fair Representation, which opposes the use of race in public policy, has helped pay Fisher’s legal bills.