Supreme Court Sends Affirmative Action Case Back to Lower Court

Fisher v. University of Texas will be re-evaluated by appeals court.

Posted: 06/24/2013 10:34 AM EDT

(Photo: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The U.S. Supreme Court today announced it is sending Fisher v. University of Texas back to appellate court. By a vote of 7-1, with one recusal, the court decided that affirmative action can be used only in narrow circumstances and that the lower court had not held the university to a “demanding burden of strict scrutiny.”

Plaintiff Abigail Fisher, who is white, initiated the court challenge after being denied admission to the University of Texas. In her complaint, she alleges that she was rejected because of her race. The university grants automatic admission to in-state applicants who graduate in the top 10 percent of their class, which has helped build ethnic and racial diversity. While at the top of her class, Fisher did not meet that criteria.

Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said it was a very cautious move and predicted the case could return to the Supreme Court next year. On a positive note, it didn’t strike down the use of race as a factor in the college admissions process.

"Our concern is that the court do anything to reverse decades of progress and do anything to tie the hands of great institutions of higher education when it comes to achieving the very important goal of diversity in the 21st century," Morial said during an appearance on MSNBC's Jansing & Co. after the announcement.

Having feared the high court would turn back the clock on affirmative action, the leaders of other civil rights groups also viewed the decision through an optimistic lens.

“[It] is an important victory for our nation as we strive to build a more inclusive, diverse America. The educational benefits of diversity are clear and the court’s decision reaffirms that it is in our national interest to expand opportunities for everyone," said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, during a conference call with reporters and civil rights leaders. "We believe that the University of Texas’ admissions policy is a carefully crafted one that will ultimately be upheld by the Court of Appeals."

The length of time the justices took to announce their decision created a "growing confidence in the civil rights community," said Damon Hewitt, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

"It was clear that the court was wrestling with their decision," he said. "But we got a just result and will live to fight another day on this."

The civil rights groups acknowledged that as the issue makes its way through the legal system, they will need to do a better job of shaping public opinion and building a broader understanding about the importance of diversity, particularly in an educational setting.

"We recognize that there are very strong feelings about affirmative action and that ultimately our desire is to ensure that there is access and opportunity for all those who've been left behind people of all races, people who are poor and so forth," said Sherrilyn Ifill, who heads the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Ifill added that her organization will work to help universities understand the ruling and how it may affect their affirmative policies, post Fisher.

"We want to make sure that universities don't turn their back in an abundance of caution on the commitment to diversity and opportunity for minority students," she said. "They know we follow the rule of law but we also adhere to the principle of equality."

In its next term, the court is scheduled to hear a case from Michigan on whether voters should be allowed to vote for or against affirmative action at the polls.

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