The Supreme Court today struck down affirmative action programs at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina (UNC), ending a nearly decade-long legal battle that placed Asian Americans at the center of national discourse.
The decision: The court ruled that the universities’ programs both violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment.
Six justices voted against and three voted in favor of the program at UNC. Meanwhile, six justices voted against and two voted in favor of the program at Harvard. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who was previously affiliated with Harvard, was recused from the latter case.
In the court’s 237-paged opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts noted that Harvard and UNC both failed to provide “measurable” objectives to justify their use of race in their admission programs:
The Harvard and UNC admissions programs cannot be reconciled with the guarantees of the Equal Protection Clause. Both programs lack sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race, unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involve racial stereotyping, and lack meaningful end points. We have never permitted admissions programs to work in that way, and we will not do so today.
What this means:
The ruling effectively discourages colleges and universities from using race as a factor in their admission processes, a policy accused by some Asian American applicants of disadvantaging them. While the opinion does not explicitly overturn prior court decisions that upheld affirmative action, concurring Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that one of them — Grutter v. Bollinger (2003)
— was “for all intents and purposes, overruled.”
Dissenting opinion: Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson each wrote dissents against the majority ruling, with the latter confining her opinion to the UNC case. Justice Elena Kagan signed both. Sotomayor wrote that the ruling “rolls back decades of precedent and momentous progress.” Meanwhile, Jackson stressed that “deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.”
The cases: The nonprofit group Students for Fair Admissions, headed by legal activist Edward Blum, filed the cases against Harvard and UNC in 2014.
The case against Harvard accused it of artificially capping Asian admissions by consistently scoring them lower in “personal qualities.” UNC, on the other hand, was accused of using race as “a dominant factor” in its admissions decisions, resulting in the “detriment of white and Asian American applicants.” In both situations, Asians were allegedly subjected to higher standards for an equal chance at admission.