The Supreme Court ruled Thursday in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, deciding 4-3 that the race-conscious admissions program at the university is legal under the equal protection clause.
The court heard arguments in December for the second time in three years in the case of a white Texas woman, Abigail Fisher, who had been rejected for admission at the University of Texas.
On Thursday, the high court affirmed the decision of the lower Fifth Circuit court, which had upheld the college's affirmative action admissions program.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the 20-page majority opinion of the court, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Chief Justice John Roberts, along with Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, dissented. Justice Alito read a summary of his dissent from the bench.
Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from the decision because as solicitor general, she had argued the case the first time it came before the court. That left just three liberal justices hearing the case. Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who once drew fire when the case was argued before the court last year for comments suggesting that African Americans should attend "slower-track" universities, passed away in February.
In his majority opinion, Kennedy asserted that a higher education institution had the right to decide what admissions criteria would best serve its mission.
"A university is in large part defined by those intangible 'qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness,'" the opinion read. "Considerable deference is owed to a university in defining those intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission."
But Kennedy's opinion also cautioned that the university should continue to scrutinize the fairness of its race-conscious admission program.
"The Court's affirmance of the University's admissions policy today does not necessarily mean the University may rely on that same policy without refinement," he wrote. "It is the University's ongoing obligation to engage in constant deliberation and continued reflection regarding its admissions policies."
In contrast, Justice Alito's dissent criticized the Texas university for failing to satisfy strict scrutiny over why a race-conscious program was necessary in the first place. Of the majority opinion, Alito blasted it as "remarkable -- and remarkably wrong,"
"What is at stake is whether university administrators may justify systematic racial discrimination simply by asserting that such discrimination is necessary to achieve 'the educational benefits of diversity,'" Alito wrote, "without explaining--much less proving--why the discrimination is needed or how the discriminatory plan is well crafted to serve its objectives."
The court first heard the case in 2013, but it effectively decided to punt the issue that year, pushing the case back to the lower courts.
The case was brought to the court by Fisher, who applied to the University of Texas-Austin as a high school senior in 2008. She filed suit against the school after she was rejected, arguing the university's consideration of race did not meet the standards previously set by the Supreme Court.
Fisher failed to graduate in the top 10 percent of her high school class, which would have assured her a spot at the state's flagship college in Austin. The "Top Ten Percent Plan," as its otherwise known, can fill up to 75 percent of the freshman class spots. UT-Austin also has a plan, however, that considers race among other admissions factors, and this accounts for up to a a quarter of its incoming freshman class.
Lawyers for Fisher said the university had no good reason to consider race at all because the "top 10" plan that the state put in place in 1997 works well to bring in Hispanic and African-American students. The Texas institution maintained the plan on its own did not do enough to assure educational diversity and argued that it needed the freedom to fill out its incoming classes as it sees fit.
The case upholds its own 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision, in which the bench said it was lawful to consider race as one admissions factor in order to achieve educational diversity at the university.