Supreme Court rules affirmative action 'must end' in college admissions

The US Supreme Court struck down decades of legal precedent that allowed colleges and universities to consider race as a factor in admissions.

The court on Thursday specifically ruled against race-conscious student admissions programs at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina.

Those programs "violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the 6-3 majority ruling in both cases, Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard, and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina.

Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, and Jackson dissented in both cases, with Jackson, a Harvard Law alumna, having recused from voting on the case involving the college.

Dozens of major corporations across various industries took interest in the case, including Apple (AAPL), Google (GOOG, GOOGL), General Motors (GM), General Dynamics (GD), Dell, and Starbucks (SBUX).

Those companies and nearly 40 others joined in an amicus brief contending that diversity in higher education ultimately helps their businesses by providing a diverse pool from which they can recruit.

The supporters went on to argue that doing away with the policy would also weaken the military’s pool of eligible college-trained recruits.

FILE - The U.S. Supreme Court is seen May 16, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)
The Supreme Court in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The decisions overhaul a string of Supreme Court cases that address the role of race in institutionalized education, starting with the high court’s landmark 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. In Brown the court outlawed race-based segregation in public schools.

The court acknowledged that its prior rulings permitted race-based admissions, saying it did so only "within the confines of narrow restrictions."

University programs, the court said, must comply with strict scrutiny — the highest standard of review applied to constitutional questions. In writing for the majority, Roberts said the universities therefore "may never use race as a stereotype or negative, and — at some point — they must end."

The challenger in both cases, Students for Fair Admissions, argued that affirmative action is illegal in public and private college settings because it penalizes equally qualified Asian-American and other minority applicants.

The group, led by conservative activist Edward Blum, claimed that UNC’s consideration of race violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, which bars government entities and public universities from discriminating based on race.

FILE - Students walk through Harvard Yard, April 27, 2022, on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 63% of Americans say the Supreme Court should not stop colleges from considering race or ethnicity in their admission systems. The Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on lawsuits challenging admissions systems at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)
Students walk through Harvard Yard on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

In its case against Harvard, a private university, the organization claimed that the school’s admissions policy violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which bars race-based discrimination by organizations that take federal funds.

Specifically, Students for Fair Admissions asked the court overturn its 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, which held the University of Michigan's Law School could consider race as a factor in admissions, so long as its practice was narrowly tailored “to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body."

Former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who penned the majority opinion in Grutter, predicted that after 25 years, affirmative action would no longer be necessary to make colleges more diverse.

"How will we know when the time has come?" Justice Brett Kavanaugh asked about O'Connor's prediction during arguments in the UNC case.

In concurring with the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that under the 14th Amendment, "the color of a person’s skin is irrelevant to that individual’s equal status as a citizen of this nation.”

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote that deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it irrelevant in reality.

"And having so detached itself from this country’s actual past and present experiences, the court has now been lured into interfering with the crucial work that UNC and other institutions of higher learning are do- ing to solve America’s real-world problems."

Alexis Keenan is a legal reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow Alexis on Twitter @alexiskweed.

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