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Supreme Court declines to block West Point from considering race in admissions decisions for now

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Washington — The Supreme Court said Friday it will not stop the U.S. Military Academy in West Point from considering race in its admissions process while a legal fight over its policies plays out before a federal appellate court.

In an unsigned order, the court said the case's "record before this Court is underdeveloped, and this order should not be construed as expressing any view on the merits of the constitutional question."

The challenge to West Point's admissions policies was brought by the group Students for Fair Admissions, which was behind the cases that led the Supreme Court to end race-conscious admissions programs at public and private colleges in June. Acting on a footnote in the majority opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, which said the decision did not apply to the nation's service academies, Students for Fair Admissions sued West Point in September on behalf of two of its members who are applying to the academy.

The group said the two applicants — one a high-school senior applying for the first time, and the other a college freshman applying for the second time — are "fully qualified but White."

Students for Fair Admissions had unsuccessfully urged the Supreme Court to grant its request for emergency relief by Jan. 31, which is West Point's application deadline.

West Point's admissions

A view of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, on May 2, 2019.
A view of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, on May 2, 2019. Seth Wenig / AP

Admission to West Point is highly selective, and the academy receives more than 13,000 applications each year for a class of 1,200 cadets. The school said that it is a "vital pipeline" to senior leadership in the armed forces, and its graduates comprise one-third of general officers in the Army, which is those above the rank of colonel.

To be considered for admissions, an applicant must satisfy several conditions, including passing a fitness test and medical examination, and receiving a nomination. West Point "considers race and ethnicity flexibly as a plus factor in an individualized, holistic assessment of African American, Hispanic and Native American" applicants in three limited circumstances during the admissions process, it said in court papers.

The Biden administration said that West Point considers race and ethnicity as one factor in these stages of its admissions process "only to further the Army's distinct interest in developing a diverse officer corps to meet its national-security mission."

But Students for Fair Admissions argued West Point unconstitutionally uses race to make certain admissions decisions and awards preferences to Black, Hispanic and Native American applicants. Because Students for Fair Admissions' two members are applying to West Point now, it asked a federal district court in White Plains, New York, to temporarily bar the school from taking race into consideration during the admissions process.

The court declined to block West Point's use of race, and on Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit denied Students for Fair Admissions' request for an injunction while it appeals on Monday.

Students for Fair Admissions asked the Supreme Court to intervene, urging it to prohibit West Point from using race as a factor in admissions decisions while litigation continues. 

"Every year this case languishes in discovery, trial, or appeals, West Point will label and sort thousands more applicants based on their skin color — including the class of 2028, which West Point will start choosing in earnest once the application deadline closes on January 31," the group told the Supreme Court in its request for emergency relief. "Should these young Americans bear the burden of West Point's unchecked racial discrimination? Or should West Point bear the burden of temporarily complying with the Constitution's command of racial equality?"

The group argued that "no applicant who is denied admission to West Point goes through a race-neutral process," and said the school's use of race has no "sunset date" for its use of race. Additionally, Students for Fair Admissions said courts cannot resolve whether the limited consideration of race in West Point's admissions is necessary to achieve a diverse officer corps that the nation's military strength and readiness depends on.

But the Justice Department, which is representing West Point in the dispute, called Students for Fair Admissions' request for an injunction "extraordinary," and said such an order would require the service academy to "jettison admissions procedures that the Army has deemed a military imperative for generations."

In a filing to the Supreme Court urging the justices to reject the group's request, Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar also indicated the urgency sought by Students for Fair Action was unnecessary, as West Point will continue evaluating applications through May 2024.

"SFFA seeks an injunction against policies that military leaders have long deemed essential to ensuring the effectiveness of the nation's military," Prelogar wrote. "SFFA acknowledges that the impact of an injunction on the Army cannot be known, but declares that if events prove it mistaken, the injunction can be reversed. That leap now, look later approach is no way to handle the composition of the nation's military forces."

The Biden administration also argued that the anti-affirmative action group doesn't dispute that a diverse officer corps furthers compelling national-security interests.

"SFFA provides no sound reason to second-guess the Army's longstanding military judgment that limited consideration of race in West Point's admissions is essential to achieving those interests," Prelogar argued. "Instead, SFFA stakes its case on a misguided effort to subject the Army to constraints this court articulated in the very different context of civilian college admissions."

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