Tuesday, July 15, 2014
On Remand, Fifth Circuit Panel Reconsiders UT's Affirmative Action Plan from Fisher v. University of Texas
By a divided opinion in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, a panel of the Fifth Circuit has held that the university met its burden of demonstrating the narrowing tailoring necessary to satisfy strict scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause.
Recall that more than a year ago, the United States Supreme Court reversed the Fifth Circuit's finding in favor of the University (affirming the district judge). The Court remanded the case for a "further judicial determination that the admissions process meets strict scrutiny in its implementation." The opinion, authored by Justice Kennedy - - - with only Justice Ginsburg dissenting and Justice Kagan recused - - -specified that the "University must prove that the means chosen by the University to attain diversity are narrowly tailored to that goal" of diversity and the University should receive no judicial deference on that point.
Today's Fifth Circuit panel decision, authored by Judge Patrick Higginbotham, and joined by Judge Carolyn Dinen King, first decided that it would consider the case. The panel rejected the standing arguments, including the fact that Abigail Fisher graduated from another university in 2012, because the "actions of the Supreme Court do not allow our reconsideration" of the standing issue. In other words, the Court knew about the standing issues when it remanded the case in June 2013. The panel also carefully considered the Court's remand language: "The judgment of the Court of Appeals is vacated, and the case remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.” Fisher argued that the Court required the Fifth Circuit to perform the reconsideration, while the University of Texas argued that the matter should be remanded to the district judge. On this issue, the Fifth Circuit sided with Fisher, holding that because "there are no new issues of fact that need be resolved, nor is there any identified need for additional discovery; that the record is sufficiently developed; and that the found error is common to both this Court and the district court," a remand to the district judge "would likely result in duplication of effort."
The panel majority's opinion then discussed in detail the University of Texas at Austin's admissions policies and efforts. It noted:
“Narrow tailoring does not require exhaustion of every race neutral alternative,” but rather “serious, good faith consideration of workable race- neutral alternatives that will achieve the diversity the university seeks.” Put simply, this record shows that UT Austin implemented every race-neutral effort that its detractors now insist must be exhausted prior to adopting a race- conscious admissions program—in addition to an automatic admissions plan not required under Grutter that admits over 80% of the student body with no facial use of race at all.
Nevertheless, the panel recognized that this "automatic admissions plan" - - - the Top Ten Percent plan - - - achieves diversity because of the segregation of Texas' high schools. Under the "holistic view" of Grutter for the remaining 20%, absent a consideration of race, the selection would not be racially diverse.
Concluding its 40 page opinion, the panel wrote:
In sum, it is suggested that while holistic review may be a necessary and ameliorating complement to the Top Ten Percent Plan, UT Austin has not shown that its holistic review need include any reference to race, this because the Plan produces sufficient numbers of minorities for critical mass. This contention views minorities as a group, abjuring the focus upon individuals— each person’s unique potential. Race is relevant to minority and non-minority, notably when candidates have flourished as a minority in their school— whether they are white or black. Grutter reaffirmed that “[j]ust as growing up in a particular region or having particular professional experiences is likely to affect an individual’s views, so too is one’s own, unique experience of being a racial minority in a society, like our own, in which race still matters.” We are persuaded that to deny UT Austin its limited use of race in its search for holistic diversity would hobble the richness of the educational experience in contradiction of the plain teachings of Bakke and Grutter. The need for such skill sets to complement the draws from majority-white and majority-minority schools flows directly from an understanding of what the Court has made plain diversity is not. To conclude otherwise is to narrow its focus to a tally of skin colors produced in defiance of Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the Court which eschewed the narrow metric of numbers and turned the focus upon individuals. This powerful charge does not deny the relevance of race. We find force in the argument that race here is a necessary part, albeit one of many parts, of the decisional matrix where being white in a minority-majority school can set one apart just as being a minority in a majority-white school—not a proffer of societal discrimination in justification for use of race, but a search for students with a range of skills, experiences, and performances—one that will be impaired by turning a blind eye to the differing opportunities offered by the schools from whence they came.
.... the backdrop of our efforts here includes the reality that accepting as permissible policies whose purpose is to achieve a desired racial effect taxes the line between quotas and holistic use of race towards a critical mass. We have hewed this line here, persuaded by UT Austin from this record of its necessary use of race in a holistic process and the want of workable alternatives that would not require even greater use of race, faithful to the content given to it by the Supreme Court. To reject the UT Austin plan is to confound developing principles of neutral affirmative action, looking away from Bakke and Grutter, leaving them in uniform but without command—due only a courtesy salute in passing.
Dissenting, Judge Emilio Garza essentially contended that the majority was giving deference to the University. He noted that it is not impossible "for a public university to define its diversity ends adequately for a court to verify narrow tailoring with the requisite exacting scrutiny," even with the use of "critical mass." But he somewhat confusing stressed that
What matters now, after Fisher, is that a state actor’s diversity goals must be sufficiently clear and definite such that a reviewing court can assess, without deference, whether its particular use of racial classifications is necessary and narrowly tailored to those goals.
Yet what will matter now is whether this panel will have the last say. The Fifth Circuit could grant en banc review or the United States Supreme Court will grant certiorari and take yet another look at affirmative action.