In a narrow but significant 4-3 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the University of Texas at Austin's affirmative action program.
The case was brought by Abigail Fisher of Sugar Land, Texas, a white woman who said the university had denied her admission based on her race. Fisher, who has since graduated from Louisiana State University, had the backing of anti-affirmative action groups.
As Vox explains:
The case, Fisher v. Texas, challenged the University of Texas at Austin's admissions procedures. Most of its students are chosen by admitting the students at the top of every high school class in the state.
Because Texas's high schools are generally racially homogenous, that ensures a certain amount of racial diversity: The majority-black high schools send black students, the majority-Latino high schools send Latino students, and the majority-white high schools send white students.
But the university also admits some students who aren't in the top 10 percent of their high school class through another process, one that takes into account musical and athletic talent, as well as race and other factors. That's the process that was challenged by Abigail Fisher, who was denied admission through the so-called "holistic review."
Thursday's decision, penned by Justice Anthony Kennedy, states that the university's race-conscious admissions program is lawful under the Equal Protection Clause. Kennedy was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented.
Justice Elena Kagan had recused herself for prior work on the case as United States solicitor general and Justice Antonin Scalia's seat has remained vacant since his death in February.
When the nine-justice panel heard oral arguments in the case last year, Scalia drew gasps and controversy when he asserted: "There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas, where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school ... a slower-track school where they do well."
On Thursday, Steve Vladeck, CNN contributor and professor of law at American University Washington College of Law, described the ruling as both "something of a surprise" and "an unexpected victory for proponents of race-conscious admissions programs."
"The decision itself is written quite narrowly, and tailored to the UT program specifically," he said. "But it's safe to assume that public universities across the country will now look at this ruling as a roadmap for how to constitutionally take race into account in admissions programs going forward."
Indeed, Fusion wrote that the outcome "appears to be a compromise of sorts," noting that "Kennedy, the most centrist justice on the Court, required the university to continue to assess the importance of race-based admissions in creating a diverse student body, and seemed to leave the door open for future challenges to the use of race in college admissions."
Still, despite its narrow parameters, civil rights advocates celebrated the ruling as a major win.
"This decision reaffirms the value of diversity in higher education and preserves the ability of colleges and universities to further that value through well thought out admissions plans," said Dennis Parker, director of the ACLU's Racial Justice Program.
"Education is richest when student bodies reflect the unique makeup of our communities," added Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the national office of the racial justice organization Advancement Project.
"Universities are strongest when scholars contribute knowledge that cannot simply be learned, but lived—through their unique cultural experiences, including those influenced by race," Dianis said. "Admissions policies that promote diversity and inclusion are necessary, and we are pleased by the Supreme Court's ruling to reaffirm them."