In a landmark judgment that has sparked a nationwide debate, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that using race as a factor in college admissions violates the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
The move has been met with mixed responses, with supporters of affirmative action arguing its role in ensuring diversity in student bodies, while critics, like the plaintiffs, argue that such a policy discriminates against qualified students based on their race.
The judgment came in response to lawsuits filed by the student activist group, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), against Harvard and the University of North Carolina. The group initially accused Harvard in 2014 of violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, claiming that its practices unfairly penalized Asian American students and overlooked race-neutral alternatives. The North Carolina case questioned the university’s rejection of non-race-based practices without demonstrating their potential negative impact on academic quality or campus diversity.
However, the First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court’s decision in favor of Harvard, declaring the evidence against the university inconclusive and suggesting the alleged discrimination impacted only a small number of Asian American students. The court ruled that SFFA did not have standing in the case.
Due to her prior role on Harvard’s Board of Overseers, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson recused herself from the Harvard case. Meanwhile, a federal district court ruled in favor of the University of North Carolina, stating that its admissions practices passed strict scrutiny.
The debate around affirmative action led to some of the most intense courtroom exchanges in the Supreme Court this term. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito notably grilled Harvard’s lawyer, Seth Waxman. Alito pressed Waxman on the lower personal scores routinely given to Asian American students, which led to a tense back-and-forth, with Alito expressing frustration at Waxman’s lack of direct answers.
Similarly, Justice Roberts questioned Waxman about the emphasis on race in admissions decisions, suggesting that it must have some impact, otherwise, it would not be included as a factor.