Supreme Court revisits affirmative action in college admissions


The U.S. Supreme Court returns to the question of affirmative action in higher education on Monday and court wags probably won’t be able to resist noting that it’s Halloween.

The justices are revisiting decades of precedent upheld over the years by narrow court majorities that included Republican-appointed justices. This time, however, there is every likelihood that the new conservative court will overrule some or all of those precedents.

The baseline for permissible affirmative action programs in higher education was established in 1978. Citing Harvard University as the model, Justice Lewis Powell said that in evaluating applicants for admission, race could not be the determinative factor, but the university could use race as one of many factors, just as it uses other traits — special talents in music, science or athletics, and even the fact that the applicant’s parents attended the university.

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The two cases overlap. Because UNC is a state school, the question is whether its affirmative-action program violates the 14th Amendment’s guarantee to equal protection of the law. And even though Harvard is a private institution, it still is covered by federal anti-discrimination laws because it accepts federal money for a wide variety of programs.

Ultimately, at the heart of both cases is the same principle: what constitutes racial discrimination?

On one side is Students for Fair Admissions, an organization founded by legal activist Edward Blum, who for decades has fought what he sees as racial preferences in school admissions and in other spheres as well.

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On the other side, Harvard and UNC contend that in addition to academic excellence, they aim for a student body that is demographically diverse, and that in evaluating the strengths of each candidate, an admissions committee “need not ignore a candidate’s race any more than it does a candidate’s home state, national origin, family background, or special achievements.”

R&I – FS

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