WASHINGTON — The conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday questioned the legality of race-conscious college admissions policies, as the justices weighed two cases that could undermine the admissions process many colleges use to promote diversity on campus.
These are two cases that challenge the legality of affirmative action on Harvard Universitythe oldest private university in the country, and University of North Carolina, one of its oldest public universities.
Depending on the scope of the court’s ruling, the outcome of these lawsuits could affect admissions at hundreds of colleges and universities across the country and even potentially impact broader efforts such as workplace diversity programs.
The oral arguments, which were supposed to last a little over two and a half hours, stretched for almost six hours in one of the most controversial cases in court this year.
Members of the court’s conservative wing, which now make up a 6-3 majority of the justices, questioned whether it is legal for universities to take race into account and how long such a policy should last.
Justice Clarence Thomas, a conservative justice and the only black member of the Supreme Court, asked each of the attorneys who defended UNC’s admissions process to explain how racial diversity benefits students’ educational experience.
“I didn’t go to racially diverse schools, but there were educational benefits. And I want you to specifically tell me that when parents send their kids to college, they don’t necessarily send them there to have fun or feel good or anything like that. They send them there to study physics or chemistry or whatever they’re studying,” Thomas told Ryan Park, an attorney representing UNC. “So tell me, what are the educational benefits of this?”
Park cited studies that have shown that diverse groups of people perform at higher levels, have less groupthink, longer disagreements, and more effective decision-making outcomes.
Thomas sounded unfazed, “Well, I don’t think I put much stock in it because I’ve heard similar arguments in favor of segregation.”
Justice Brett Kavanaugh asked how religious diversity is considered in the admissions process and why it has “unequal treatment” from a racial perspective.
Liberals defend ‘pipelines to leadership’
The more liberal justices, who are in the minority, defended the use of race in admissions, arguing that it would be difficult to achieve diversity without any consideration of race.
Justice Elena Kagan, former dean of Harvard Law School, noted the importance of racial diversity on college campuses because they are “pipelines to leadership in our society.”
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson questioned whether a college can consider the breadth of a student’s experience without regard to race.
She presented the hypothetical case of a black student, a descendant of slaves who was not allowed to attend UNC, who should not have written about it on his application. But a white student descended from generations of UNC graduates could relate to the importance of that family connection.
“What concerns me is … the context of a comprehensive university review process that can consider and value all other backgrounds and personal characteristics of applicants, but cannot value race,” Jackson said in arguments with an attorney challenging UNC’s policies.
“My concern is that I think it could create more problems with equal protection than it solves,” Jackson added.
Jackson participated in the debate on the UNC case, but not on the Harvard case. Jackson, the first black woman to serve as a Supreme Court justice, graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School and sat on Harvard’s Board of Overseers until last spring.
“How do you know when you’re done?”
Since 1978, the Supreme Court has held that colleges and universities can consider race or ethnicity as a “plus factor” in admissions to try to create more diversity on campuses.
Schools cannot have racial quotas or use race as the sole determining factor. This is one of the many factors they may consider in admissions.
But the victory for affirmative action has been narrow in the past three different Supreme Court decisions, where the justices have split 5-4, 5-4 and 4-3 to uphold its constitutionality.
The Supreme Court last ruled on an affirmative action case in 2016, which is recent history in the case law timeline.
They were Chief Justice John Roberts, Thomas and Justice Samuel Alito those who think otherwise in a 2016 decision. They now have three more conservatives on the bench: Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett and Neil Gorsuch.
Several of these more conservative justices questioned whether the policy should stand. They noted that one of the precedents in itself warned that such a policy should not last forever. 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger the case that allowed limited use of race in college admissions also announced that affirmative action would no longer be necessary 25 years after the ruling.
The court’s conservative justices asked whether colleges were reaching the end of that timeframe, 19 years later.
“When do you read or calculate, if you even consider, the 25-year limit?” Kavanaugh asked.
They also wondered how to determine whether the goals of affirmative action were achieved at all.
“How do you know when you’re done? When would we have an end point?” Barrett asked.
“I don’t see how you can say the program is ever going to end,” Roberts told UNC attorney Ryan Park.
The DOJ predicts the wide-ranging effects of a potential decision
General Elizabeth Prelogar, Attorney General of the Department of Justice, joined the defendants in defending the current policy. She noted that racial diversity is especially important at the nation’s military schools and academies, helping to ensure a more diverse officer corps that reflects the diversity of the Army’s soldiers.
But she said the effects of the ruling could be much wider.
“The petitioner is seeking a sweeping judgment that would prejudice students in schools and colleges across the country. A blanket ban on race-conscious admissions would result in a decline in racial diversity at many of our nation’s leading educational institutions,” Prelogar said.
“Race-neutral alternatives cannot currently compensate for difference, and all students in these schools would be deprived of the benefits of learning in a diverse educational environment. And since the college is the training ground for America’s future leaders, the negative consequences would reverberate through almost every important institution in America.”
A challenge for non-profit organizations
Non-profit Fair admission students filed lawsuits to claim that consideration of race is discriminatory and violates civil rights laws.
V The North Carolina casealleges that the university discriminates against white and Asian-American applicants by favoring black, Native American or Hispanic applicants.
The group accuses Harvard in particular of Frf discrimination against Asian American applicants in order to increase the representation of other groups. According to the group, Asian-American applicants are significantly less likely to be admitted to Harvard than similarly qualified white, black or Hispanic applicants.
“What Harvard is doing to Asians, like what it did to Jews in the 1920s, is shameful, but a predictable result of allowing universities to use race in highly subjective processes,” said Cameron Norris, a lawyer who opposes the policy. Harvard. the court. Harvard limited the number of Jewish students it admitted in the 1920s.
The cases are the culmination of decades of legal challenges by the group Students for Fair Admissions, founded by Edward Blum, a retired financier and conservative legal activist who has brought other lawsuits over what he sees as racial preferences in school admissions.
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