Earlier this morning, the Supreme Court ordered the lower District Court to reconsider the status of the race-conscious admissions programs of the University of Texas. The decision is an incremental step toward curbing affirmative action but allows schools to continue with race conscious admissions programs for now.
The 7-1 ruling preserves the Supreme Court’s precarious policy on affirmative action. The Supreme Court has largely condemned quotas and allowed “holistic” admissions programs even when the two amount to the roughly the same thing. The ruling requires schools to justify more narrowly their admissions process to district courts.
“The university must prove that the means chosen by the university to attain diversity are narrowly tailored to that goal,” writes Justice Kennedy in the majority opinion. The courts must “verify that it is necessary for a university to use race to achieve the educational benefits of diversity.” Furthermore, this must include “a careful judicial inquiry into whether a university could achieve sufficient diversity without using racial classifications.”
However, this matter of whether affirmative action is justified or not is exactly what most were expecting the Supreme Court to decide rather than the matter of who should decide and how. For now, the Supreme Court maintains its broad approach to affirmative action: educational diversity is important enough to overcome federal restrictions against racial discrimination.
The decision comes as a disappointment for many. Affirmative action is more unpopular among Americans now than it ever has before. However it is also displeasing to advocates of affirmative action who see this as an incremental step towards the decline of the program. Finally, the ruling is most unwelcome to universities that engage in race conscious admissions programs. The ruling opens a floodgate of potential lawsuits from similarly dissatisfied and skeptical applicants. The onus is now on the side of the universities to expend their time and resources into justifying their programs.
In effect, the Supreme Court has put the burden of proof on the schools. It allows affirmative action so long as it can be proven necessary. However, this is precisely the debate that has been ongoing since the 1970s that was expected to be put to rest today. The ruling smacks of evasion rather than adjudication and, despite its nearly unanimous support in Court, is likely to please no one.