ADEA Washington Update

U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin

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On June 24, 2013, the United States Supreme Court issued a 7-1 ruling on Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (Fisher). Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from the case.

Abigail Fisher, an applicant to the University of Texas at Austin, filed the suit against the university in 2008; the suit asked that the Supreme Court either declare the admissions policy of the university inconsistent with Grutter v. Bollinger, or overrule it entirely. In the 2003 case, the Supreme Court ruled that race could only play a limited role in the admissions policies of public universities. The United States District Court heard Fisher v. University of Texas in 2009 and upheld the legality of the university's admission policy. The case was appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals which also ruled in the university's favor. On February 21, 2012, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

In ruling, the Supreme Court held that the Fifth Circuit must rehear the Fisher case. The Supreme Court ruled that the Fifth Circuit was incorrect in upholding a lower court’s summary judgment in favor of Texas because the lower court had failed to apply “strict scrutiny”.1 to the university’s policy. “Strict scrutiny,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority, “does not permit a court to accept a school’s assertion that its admissions process uses race in a permissible way without closely examining how the process works in practice.” Furthermore, Justice Kennedy stated that affirmative action programs must “verify that it is necessary for a university to use race to achieve the educational benefits of diversity.” That requires “a careful judicial inquiry into whether a university could achieve sufficient diversity without using racial classifications.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the lone dissent, stating that she would have upheld the appeals court decision endorsing the entire Texas admissions program. It should be noted, that the ruling in the Fisher case did not overrule Grutter, which could have ended affirmative action policies in admissions at U.S. public universities. There is speculation that the Supreme Court will see this case again.

1. The standard used to determine whether a classification of a group of persons (such as a racial group) or a fundamental right (such as the right to vote) violates due process and equal protection rights under the United States Constitution. Strict scrutiny is used to establish whether there is a compelling need that justifies the law being enacted.

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