Supreme Court Issues Landmark Ruling On Affirmative Action At Universities

The ruling resolves a pair of cases.
WASHINGTON - APRIL 1: Affirmative action supporters rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court April 1, 2003 in Washington, DC. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the University of Michigan affirmative action cases to see if the school can consider race in the undergraduate and law school admissions. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Supreme Court ruled against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina’s affirmative action policies in a decision that will have a profound effect on the admissions processes at universities across the country.

The court ruled that the race-based admissions programs at Harvard violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and the University of North Carolina violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

The court voted six to three in the University of North Carolina case and six to two in the Harvard case. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, a Harvard graduate and former Harvard board member, recused herself from the Harvard case.

Justices John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett voted with the majority in both cases.

“Eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the opinion for the majority.

“Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise. But, despite the dissent’s assertion to the contrary, universities may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today,” the court’s opinion stated.

Justices Jackson and Sonia Sotomayor wrote dissents.

Sotomayor accused the majority of  “further entrenching racial inequality in education.”

“Today, this Court stands in the way and rolls back decades of precedent and momentous progress,” Sotomayor wrote, adding that the court “cements a superficial rule of colorblindness as a constitutional principle in an endemically segregated society where race has always mattered and continues to matter.”

The ruling resolves a pair of cases from students against Harvard and the University of North Carolina.

A group called Students for Fair Admissions sued the elite schools, accusing them of unfairly factoring race into their admissions processes. The group pointed to the high test scores of Asian-American and white applicants who were rejected.

Students for Fair Admissions argued that Harvard violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination by schools that receive federal funding. In the other case, the group accused the University of North Carolina of violating the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause by considering race in its admissions process.

“Racial classifications are wrong,” the student group’s attorney, Patrick Strawbridge, said in his opening argument back in October.


“This court has always said that racial classifications are invidious,” Strawbridge said.

The plaintiffs had asked the Supreme Court to overrule a 2003 case, Grutter v. Bollinger, in which the court ruled that the University of Michigan Law School may consider race in its admissions process.

At the time Grutter was decided, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said, “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary.”

In the court’s opinion Thursday, Justice Roberts noted that two decades have passed since the Grutter decision.

“Twenty years have passed since Grutter, with no end to race-based college admissions in sight. But the Court has permitted race-based college admissions only within the confines of narrow restrictions: such admissions programs must comply with strict scrutiny, may never use race as a stereotype or negative, and must — at some point — end.”

Both Harvard’s and the University of North Carolina’s admissions systems, “however well intentioned and implemented in good faith — fail each of these criteria,” the court wrote.

During opening arguments, several of the court’s conservative justices questioned the merits of race-based admissions, sparking speculation that they would rule against affirmative action.

“When does it end? When is your sunset? When will you know?” asked Justice Amy Coney Barrett. “What if it continues to be difficult in another 25 years?”

“I’ve heard the word diversity a number of times, and I don’t have a clue what it means,” said Justice Clarence Thomas, adding that he “doesn’t put much stock” in arguments for diversity because he has heard similar arguments for segregation.

Hundreds of universities that consider race in admissions and scholarship decisions will now have to find non-race-related ways to replace affirmative action.

Cornell University has already established a task force to figure out how the New York Ivy League school will continue to recruit diverse classes.

Some schools have already begun to move away from using standardized test scores in the admissions process as the argument that standardized testing harms minority students picks up steam. In March, Columbia University became the first Ivy League school to permanently scrap its standardized test requirement, allowing hopeful applicants to skip the dreaded SAT and ACT. Previously, a low SAT or ACT score meant automatic elimination at most top-tier schools.

Some schools are also considering requiring more essays for admission to get a better idea of a student’s background, while others plan to recruit students from minority areas or admit more students transferring from community colleges.

Back in 1995, the University of California system board of regents banned affirmative action so UC adopted roundabout ways of trying to identify minority students, such as through poor neighborhoods and family income.

The ruling will likely spark future legal challenges from affirmative action supporters.

Meanwhile, a majority of Americans, 62%, oppose race-based college admissions, according to a recent Reuters poll.

This is a breaking news story and will be updated.

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