The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on Tuesday overturned a decision from the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia that held the Virginia Fairfax County School Board’s (Board) new admissions policy violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause. The plaintiffs in the case asserted that the policy disparately impacted Asian American students.
Judge Robert Bruce King authored the opinion of the court. The court ruled that the “facially race-neutral” policy does not disparately impact Asian American students and that the plaintiffs did not establish that the Board adopted the policy with discriminatory intent. A facially race-neutral policy is subject to strict scrutiny under the Fourteenth Amendment if the plaintiffs show that the policy exacts a disproportionate impact on a certain racial group and that such impact is traceable to an “invidious discriminatory intent.” If these requirements are not satisfied, the policy faces a rational basis review, which is almost always passed in favor of the policy.
For the first element, the court ruled that the plaintiffs failed to show that the policy has a racially disparate impact on Asian American students. The court stated that the plaintiffs failed to show that the students face “proportionally more difficulty in securing admission… than do students from other racial or ethnic groups.” The court noted that disproportionate impact necessitates a relative inquiry, not a simple appraisal of one group’s performance over time. For the second element, the court ruled that the plaintiffs failed to show any direct evidence of discriminatory intent.
Because the plaintiffs failed to establish the elements to receive strict scrutiny by the court, the court assessed the policy on a racial basis review. The court concluded with “no difficulty” that the policy is rationally related to a legitimate state interest.
Judge Allison Blair Jones wrote a dissenting opinion. The dissent argued that the policy should have received strict scrutiny because the plaintiffs established that the policy disparately impacts Asian American students and was adopted by the Board with discriminatory intent. Jones pointed to reduced enrollment offers to Asian American students by 26 percent after the adoption of the policy at issue and increased enrollment in every other racial group. Additionally, the dissent asserted that the Board adopted the policy with “invidious” intent because the Board used racial data in its decision to adopt the policy.
The lawsuit began when the Board changed its admissions process to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in 2020. The new policy got rid of a previously required standardized test and used a more “holistic approach” in admitting students. The policy also capped the number of students allowed from each of the district’s 23 middle schools.