By Peter Schmidt | Chronicle of Higher Education
October 31, 2011
Leading critics of affirmative action say they are optimistic that the U.S. Supreme Court will take up a lawsuit challenging the race-conscious admissions policies of the University of Texas at Austin and hand down a ruling that curtails, or even ends, the use of such admissions preferences by colleges around the nation.
In briefs urging the Supreme Court to hear the case, the lawyers for two white students rejected by the university have been joined by several conservative advocacy groups and other foes of affirmative-action preferences in arguing that colleges have strayed far beyond the limits on such policies set forth by the Supreme Court when it weighed in on them in 2003, in two decisions involving the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
All of the briefs filed on behalf of the two students ask for the Supreme Court to overturn an appellate-court ruling that upheld the University of Texas's race-conscious admissions policies, and several argue that the case presents the high court with an opportunity to revisit its 2003 rulings and further restrict, or even eliminate, the use of affirmative-action preferences by colleges.
The University of Texas has remained silent, so far, on the question of whether the Supreme Court should take up the case, and no one has yet submitted any other briefs on its behalf to urge the justices to leave alone the lower court's ruling in its case.
The university's deadline for submitting a brief on its own was October 19, but the Supreme Court cannot decide to hear the case, Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin, without offering the university an opportunity to argue against its doing so. If the Supreme Court asks the university to submit such a brief, those who support the university's policies will have another opportunity to submit friend-of-the-court briefs on its behalf.
Officials of the University of Texas and the state attorney general's office, which is helping to represent it in the case, declined last week to comment on their reason for not having already filed a brief urging the court not to take up matter.
Although several lawyers with expertise on the Supreme Court said the university's failure to volunteer such a brief on its own, without an invitation by justices, will not matter, Michael A. Carvin, a lawyer for Jones Day who has argued several cases before the high court, characterized the move as a "mind-boggling" strategic mistake.
"The only times you don't file a response are if they are low-visibility cases where there is no chance" the Supreme Court will decide to hear them, Mr. Carvin said. "Texas' decision not to file," he said, "is inexcusable and insulting to the court."
Among the lawyers for groups likely to file friend-of-the-court briefs on the university's behalf, Ada Meloy, general counsel for the American Council on Education, said her organization has been "waiting to see how this would play out."
Damon Todd Hewitt, who oversees litigation related to education for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said his organization is prepared to argue that the constitutionality of race-conscious admissions policies is "settled precedent" and there is "no need for further review by the Supreme Court."
Source of Division
If the Supreme Court does take up the case, a key question before it will be whether the University of Texas needs to have race-conscious admissions policies to achieve sufficiently diverse enrollments, or had taken in adequate numbers of students from various minority populations under a state law guaranteeing admission to any public university to students graduating from a Texas high school in the top 10th of their class.
Texas lawmakers adopted the admissions guarantee, widely known as the "top 10 percent plan," in 1997, in response to a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in a legal challenge to the use of race-conscious admissions by the University of Texas' law school.
The Fifth Circuit's decision in that case, Hopwood v. Texas, was interpreted as barring the state's colleges from considering applicants' race or ethnicity, but the law guaranteeing admission based on a high-school class rank helped black and Hispanic enrollments at the University of Texas rebound, reaching levels above what they had been before the Hopwood decision.
Federal appeals courts in other circuits around the nation upheld the consideration of race in admissions, however, and the legal landscape surrounding them changed significantly when the Supreme Court ruled on their constitutionality in two landmark 2003 decisions involving the University of Michigan, in the cases Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger.
In the Gratz case the Supreme Court voted 6 to 3 to strike down the admissions policy of the university's main undergraduate college, with the majority opinion holding that the university put too much emphasis on race in using a point-based admission system that automatically gave substantial bonuses to members of certain minority groups. In the Grutter case, however, the court voted 5 to 4 to uphold the race-conscious admission policy of the university's law school.
The Grutter majority's opinion strongly endorsed the idea that the law school had a compelling interest in using affirmative action to enroll "critical masses" of black, Hispanic, and American Indian students because of the educational benefits such diversity was said to provide.
It also concluded that the law school's policy was "narrowly tailored" to achieving such a goal because race and ethnicity were considered among several factors in the course of the law school's holistic evaluation of applicants. The Grutter majority's opinion cautioned, however, that colleges, before adopting such policies, should give "serious, good-faith consideration" to race-neutral alternatives.
Based on the Grutter ruling, the University of Texas returned to considering applicants' race and ethnicity in 2005. Lawyers for the Project on Fair Representation, an organization opposed to affirmative-action preferences, responded by mounting a legal challenge to the move on behalf of Abigail Fisher, a white applicant for undergraduate admission that the university had rejected.
A U.S. District Court judge tossed out the lawsuit in 2009, arguing that the university's policy was constitutional because it was narrowly tailored. Although a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit unanimously upheld that decision in January, one of the three judges, Emilio M. Garza, heavily criticized the Grutter opinion that had served as the basis of the panel's decision as a digression from Supreme Court precedents and as having little basis on concrete evidence of the educational benefits of such policies.
In voting 9 to 7 in June to deny a rehearing of the case by all of its members, the full Fifth Circuit was even more bitterly divided. Its chief judge, Edith H. Jones, was joined by four others in issuing a dissent that said the three-judge panel had actually strayed from the requirements of Grutter by showing too much deference to the views of college administrators, failing to consider the success of the state's "top 10 percent plan" as a race-neutral alternative, and accepting the university's argument that it needed race-conscious admissions to bring about diversity at a classroom—and not just institutional—level.
Speaking strictly in terms of numbers, the odds of the U.S. Supreme Court hearing a case are tiny—it typically grants fewer than 1 out of 100 requests for it to take up legal disputes. But, in interviews last week, several legal scholars said the Supreme Court was much likelier to take up the University of Texas case than most.
Among the reasons they cited was that the composition of the court has changed significantly since the Grutter decision, with the justice who wrote for the Grutter majority, Sandra Day O'Connor, retiring and being replaced by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who appears to take a much dimmer view of affirmative-action preferences.
"Given how much the justices care about this issue, and given the perception of the conservative justices that they can at least cut back on Grutter if not overrule it with their new majority, I suspect they'll take it," says Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at the University of California at Irvine.
Samuel Issacharoff, a professor of constitutional law at New York University who helped represent the University of Texas in Hopwood, said the high profile of the latest case, along with the Fifth Circuit judges' deep division over it, "certainly increases the likelihood" the Supreme Court will take it up.
But Michael A. Olivas, a professor of law at the University of Houston who examines Supreme Court cases dealing with higher education in his forthcoming book Suing Alma Mater: Higher Education and the Courts, last week predicted that the Supreme Court will turn down the case as "not ripe," especially since federal circuit courts do not seem to be in disagreement over how to interpret the Grutter ruling.
"It does not present any fresh issue," he said. "My guess is that the court is tired of this."
If the Supreme Court does take up the case, Justice Elena Kagan may need to recuse herself if, in her former capacity as solicitor general, she played a role in the Obama administration's submission to the Fifth Circuit of a brief siding with the University of Texas. Although Justice Kagan is a member of the court's liberal wing, which is unlikely to have a majority with or without her, as a former dean of Harvard's law school, she could be a powerful voice arguing the perspective of such institutions.
In their brief asking the Supreme Court to take up the case, the lawyers for the white students who were rejected said the Fifth Circuit panel erred in relying too heavily on the university's "good faith" in accepting its assertions it had tailored its policies to be constitutional.
They also argue that the Fifth Circuit judges were mistaken in accepting the university's arguments that its admission policies needed to take into account the state's demographics and that it needed to have racial and ethnic diversity at the classroom level. Achieving classroom diversity, it argues, would require the university to make major changes in the curriculum, steer students into certain schools and majors, or make race such a dominant consideration in admissions that "a flood of minority students would solve the problem."
Six friend-of-the-court briefs urging the justices to take up the case have been filed on the plaintiffs' behalf.
Among them is a brief submitted by Richard H. Sander, a professor of law at the University of California at Los Angeles who has published studies questioning whether race-conscious admission policies achieve their goals, and Stuart Taylor Jr., a lawyer and journalist.
It argues that "a growing volume" of research suggests that racial preferences in higher education undermine minority achievement. Such students are often ill-prepared for the demands placed on them and respond by segregating themselves into easier majors, they say, which calls into question the argument that affirmative-action preferences can produce classroom diversity.
They also argue that elite colleges' failure to do more to bring about socioeconomic diversity—which would help increase racial and ethnic diversity as a side effect—calls into question the institutions' assertions that their race-conscious admission policies are narrowly tailored.
Among the other friend-of-the-court briefs submitted, one from several organizations that have played a prominent role in fighting race-conscious admission policies, including the American Civil Rights Institute and the Center for Equal Opportunity, says the court should take up the case "because universities nationwide have used Grutter as a blueprint for employing racial criteria in university admission policies, instead of treating it as a warning to scale back reliance on race."
A brief from the Asian American Legal Foundation, which is at odds with other Asian civil-rights groups in its opposition to race-conscious admission policies, accuses the University of Texas of discriminating against Asian-American applicants to meet its diversity goals and argues that allowing the Fifth Circuit's decision to stand will leave not just colleges but public schools feeling free to exhibit bias against Asian students.