[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] 7-1 Monday in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin [SCOTUSblog backgrounder; JURIST report] that the appeals court did not apply the correct standard in upholding a ruling for the university in an affirmative action challenge. Petitioner Abigail Noel Fisher, a Caucasian student, was denied undergraduate admission to University of Texas at Austin (UT) in 2008 and subsequently challenged the admissions policy, which allows the university to consider race and ethnicity during admissions processing. The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled in 2011 that the policy did not violate [JURIST report] Fisher’s rights to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment and federal civil rights statutes, affirming a lower court decision which granted summary judgment to UT. In Monday’s ruling the Supreme Court found that because the Fifth Circuit did not hold UT to the demanding burden of strict scrutiny articulated in Grutter v. Bollinger [opinion; JURIST symposium] and Regents of the University of California v. Bakke [opinion], its decision affirming the district court’s grant of summary judgment to UT was incorrect:
Strict scrutiny must not be “strict in theory, but fatal in fact.” … But the opposite is also true. Strict scrutiny must not be strict in theory but feeble in fact. In order for judicial review to be meaningful, a university must make a showing that its plan is narrowly tailored to achieve the only interest that this Court has approved in this context: the benefits of a student body diversity that “encompasses a … broa[d] array of qualifications and characteristics of which racial or ethnic origin is but a single though important element.”
In an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court vacated the Fifth Circuit’s ruling and remanded the case. Justice Elena Kagan was recused.
Justice Antonin Scalia filed a concurring opinion, noting that he adheres to his view articulated in Grutter: “The Constitution proscribes government discrimination on the basis of race, and state-provided education is no exception.” However, since the petitioner did not ask the court to overrule Grutter‘s holding, he joined the opinion in full. Justice Clarence Thomas also wrote a separate concurrence to explain why he would overrule Grutter. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg filed a lone dissent—she would have affirmed the Fifth Circuit’s ruling.