Thursday, June 23, 2016

Supreme Court Upholds Texas Admissions Plan, Turning an Important Corner in How It Assesses Race

This morning, the Supreme Court in Fisher v. Texas upheld the long contested admissions program at the University of Texas.  In an opinion by Justice Kennedy, the Court reasoned that the consideration of race was narrowly tailored, meaning that it was necessary, that without it a critical mass would not be achieved, and that the University had considered race neutral alternatives.  One of the most telling lines to me, however, was "[t]hat race consciousness played a role in only a small portion of admissions decisions should be a hallmark of narrow tailoring, not evidence of unconstitutionality."  As I have long emphasized, the very limited role that race plays in Texas admissions was the point that was getting lost.  In the overall scope of things, race plays a role across a very small number of applications and, within those applications where it does play it role, it is considered alongside several other factors.  In other words, it is a factor within a factor within a factor.  

Only by ignoring the larger scope and narrowing one's view down to the precise instance in which race plays a role can one offer a reasonable argument that Texas's use of race is inconsistent with what the Court previously sanctioned in Grutter v. Bollinger.  I argue here that race plays a smaller role in admission decisions at Texas than it did at Michigan in Grutter.  Thus, what Fisher was really about was an attempt to reverse Grutter itself.  But that could be achieved only by elevated form over function (i.e. making the question of whether race was considered more important than the question of how it was considered).  Unfortunately, form has consistently triumphed over function in most recent race cases, which is why many have been so concerned about the final outcome in Fisher over the past few years.  That form did not triumph in Fisher today is victory not just for Texas or diversity, but for the more realistic assessment of race cases before the Supreme Court in the future.  

The case may also signal a shift for Justice Kennedy. In the past, Justice Kennedy has held out the theoretical notion that he approved of race conscious action, but he had never upheld an actual plan.  This led many commentators and scholars to muse that he was toying with litigants, presenting himself as progressive in theory by staunchly conservative in practice.  Today, Justice Kennedy proved them wrong.  Then again, maybe this decision is just the productive of a perfect storm in which only 7 justices decided the case, Justice Scalia is no longer on the Court, and Justice Kennedy's role as the swing vote may be nearing its end.

Get the full opinion here.  See the pertinent parts of the Court's syllabus below:

The Court offers this condensed explanation in its syllabus:

The University’s approach to admissions gives rise to an unusual consequence here. The component with the largest impact on petitioner’s chances of admission was not the school’s consideration of race under its holistic-review process but the Top Ten Percent Plan. Because petitioner did not challenge the percentage part of the plan, the record is devoid of evidence of its impact on diversity. Remand for further factfinding would serve little purpose, however, because at the time of petitioner’s application, the current plan had been in effect only three years and, in any event, the University lacked authority to alter the percentage plan, which was mandated by the Texas Legislature. These circumstances refute any criticism that the University did not make good faith efforts to comply with the law. The University, however, does have a continuing obligation to satisfy the strict scrutiny burden: by periodically reassessing the admission program’s constitutionality, and efficacy, in light of the school’s experience and the data it has gathered since adopting its admissions plan, and by tailoring its approach to ensure that race plays no greater role than is necessary to meet its compelling interests. Pp. 8–11.

(c) Drawing all reasonable inferences in her favor, petitioner has not shown by a preponderance of the evidence that she was denied equal treatment at the time her application was rejected. Pp. 11–19. (1) Petitioner claims that the University has not articulated its compelling interest with sufficient clarity because it has failed to state more precisely what level of minority enrollment would constitute a “critical mass.” However, the compelling interest that justifies consideration of race in college admissions is not an interest in enrolling a certain number of minority students, but an interest in obtaining “the educational benefits that flow from student body diversity.” Fisher I, 570 U. S., at ___. Since the University is prohibited from Cite as: 579 U. S. ____ (2016) 3 Syllabus seeking a particular number or quota of minority students, it cannot be faulted for failing to specify the particular level of minority enrollment at which it believes the educational benefits of diversity will be obtained. On the other hand, asserting an interest in the educational benefits of diversity writ large is insufficient. A university’s goals cannot be elusory or amorphous—they must be sufficiently measurable to permit judicial scrutiny of the policies adopted to reach them. The record here reveals that the University articulated concrete and precise goals—e.g., ending stereotypes, promoting “cross-racial understanding,” preparing students for “an increasingly diverse workforce and society,” and cultivating leaders with “legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry”—that mirror the compelling interest this Court has approved in prior cases. It also gave a “reasoned, principled explanation” for its decision, id., at ___, in a 39-page proposal written after a year-long study revealed that its race-neutral policies and programs did not meet its goals. Pp. 11–13. (2) Petitioner also claims that the University need not consider race because it had already “achieved critical mass” by 2003 under the Top Ten Percent Plan and race-neutral holistic review. The record, however, reveals that the University studied and deliberated for months, concluding that race-neutral programs had not achieved the University’s diversity goals, a conclusion supported by significant statistical and anecdotal evidence. Pp. 13–15. (3) Petitioner argues further that it was unnecessary to consider race because such consideration had only a minor impact on the number of minority students the school admitted. But the record shows that the consideration of race has had a meaningful, if still limited, effect on freshman class diversity. That race consciousness played a role in only a small portion of admissions decisions should be a hallmark of narrow tailoring, not evidence of unconstitutionality. P. 15. (4) Finally, petitioner argues that there were numerous other race-neutral means to achieve the University’s goals. However, as the record reveals, none of those alternatives was a workable means of attaining the Universi

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