U.S. Supreme Court sends Fisher vs. UT Austin back to circuit court

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The U.S. Supreme Court ordered Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, a case that considered the constitutionality of using race in university admissions, to be re-examined by lower courts in a decision Monday.

The court’s decision of 7 to 1 said that when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit judged the case, it did not hold the University of Texas at Austin to the burden of strict scrutiny that was prescribed in previous affirmative action cases, such as Grutter v. Bollinger and Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. The decision means the university must prove in a lower court that its admissions practices are narrowly targeted to its educational goals.

Abigail Fisher, a white student, brought the lawsuit against the University of Texas at Austin, claiming she was rejected for admission in 2008 as a result of racial discrimination prohibited by the 14th Amendment. The university argued it had an interest in pursuing diversity for its educational benefits.

In August, the University of California and chancellors from all 10 UC campuses submitted an amicus brief declaring support for the University of Texas at Austin’s use of race in the admissions process.

Since 1997, California public universities have not been able to consider race in admissions because of Proposition 209, a 1996 ballot initiative forbidding state-funded institutions from considering factors such as race or ethnicity in admissions or hiring decisions.

In a statement released following the decision, UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks criticized California’s continued ban of race-based admissions but praised the court’s decision for acknowledging the benefits of maintaining diversity in higher education.

“At the University of California, we have experienced the unfortunate consequences of state law that precludes the consideration of race, even in the context of a holistic admissions review,” Dirks said. “It is reassuring to know that universities in states permitting the consideration of race in admissions will not be compelled to take the same unfortunate path the University of California has been forced to follow.”

However, any immediate effects of the decision on affirmative action in California are unlikely because of Prop. 209, according to Janelle Scott, a professor at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education.

“We have the Grutter decision … (and) that didn’t do anything in California,” Scott said. “So I think it’s unlikely any other decision will shift 209.”

However, Tony Le, executive director of the UC Berkeley bridges Multicultural Resource Center, said that the decision may recatalyze action for SB 185, a 2011 bill that would have overturned Prop. 209. SB 185 passed both state legislative houses but was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

“If (a similar bill) were to pass, the supporters of affirmative action will push it further, since it was so close the first time,” Le said.

Contact Mary Zhou at [email protected]