The Supreme Court appeared poised Monday to rule that race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina were illegal, after more than five hours of hearings of acrimonious and sometimes testy arguments, a move that would overturn decades of precedent.
Such a decision would threaten affirmative action at colleges and universities across the country, especially at elite institutions, reduce the representation of black and Hispanic students, and increase the number of white and Asian students.
The questions from members of the conservative majority of six justices were sharp and skeptical. “I have heard the word diversity many times and I have no idea what it means,” said Justice Clarence Thomas. “It seems to mean everything to everyone.”
If the court were to strike down affirmative action by the end of its current term, it would mark the second time in a year that its conservative super-majority has thrown out decades of precedent to overturn a policy that has helped define American life. But as its decision in June, which struck down the constitutional right to abortion, made clear, members of that majority have not hesitated to take bold steps on divisive issues.
A ruling against the universities would be further evidence of the court’s backtracking after President Donald J. Trump appointed three justices, and could raise new questions about whether the court’s approach to precedent threatens the stability of the law and the court’s legitimacy.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who sees himself as the guardian of the court’s independence and authority, may have conflicting motives in the cases heard Monday. He has long been critical of racial discrimination. His questions about race-neutral means of achieving diversity suggested he might be following a characteristically incremental path.
This approach could limit the scope of the decision to reject race-conscious programs.
In general, two themes ran through the House conservatives’ questions: that educational diversity can be achieved without direct consideration of race, and that there must come a time when colleges and universities stop creating
Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that “race is connected to some experiences and not to others.”
“If you’re black,” she said, “you’re more likely to be in an under-resourced school. You are more likely to be taught by teachers who are not as qualified as others. You are more likely to be viewed as having less academic potential.
The conservative supermajority Supreme Court heard arguments in two cases that call into question the fate of affirmative action in higher education, threatening decades of precedent.
Harvard is accused of discriminating against Asian-American students by using a subjective standard to assess traits such as likability, courage and kindness, effectively creating a ceiling for those students in admissions.
In another case, plaintiffs alleged that the University of North Carolina discriminated against white and Asian applicants by favoring black, Hispanic, and Native American applicants.
©2022 The New York Times News Service