Supreme Court Upholds Affirmative Action Policies at UT Austin

In a 4-3 vote Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a challenge to an affirmative action admissions program used by the University of Texas (UT) at Austin. The decision is good news for advocates of race-conscious admissions policies.

The case, Fisher v. University of Texas, challenged the university’s holistic admissions practices, whereby applicants are considered based on a range of factors, including academic achievements as well as race and ethnicity — a common practice at universities across the country.

Abigail Fisher — a white woman — first brought her case before a U.S. district court in 2009, arguing that she had been discriminated against after having been denied admission to UT Austin. After the court upheld the legality of the university’s policies, Fisher appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which also ruled in favor of the school. The case went before the Supreme Court in 2012, which sent it back to the appellate court to be reconsidered. After the Fifth Circuit confirmed its original conclusion, Fisher’s appeal again came before the Supreme Court this year.

Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from the vote, having worked on the case previously. Justice Anthony Kennedy — joined by justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor — ruled in favor of UT Austin’s practices. Former Justice Antonin Scalia, who passed away in February, had been a vocal opponent of affirmative action in higher education.

Despite the court’s ruling, Kennedy, in his majority opinion, emphasized the need to continually reconsider admissions policies.

“Still, it remains an enduring challenge to our nation’s education system to reconcile the pursuit of diversity with the constitutional promise of equal treatment and dignity,” he wrote. “… It is the university’s ongoing obligation to engage in constant deliberation and continued reflection regarding its admissions policies.”