WASHINGTON â€” In a 2003 decision that the majority said it expected would last for 25 years, theÂ Supreme CourtÂ allowed public colleges and universities to take account of race in admission decisions. On Tuesday, the court signaled that it might end such affirmative action much sooner than that.
By agreeing to hear a major case involving race-conscious admissions at the University of Texas, the court thrust affirmative action back into the public and political discourse after years in which it had mostly faded from view. Both supporters and opponents of affirmative action said they saw the announcement â€” and the change in the courtâ€™s makeup since 2003 â€” as a signal that the courtâ€™s five more conservative members might be prepared to do away with racial preferences in higher education.
The consequences of such a decision would be striking. It would, all sides agree, reduce the number of African-American and Latino students at nearly every selective college and graduate school, with more Asian-American and white students gaining entrance instead.
A decision barring the use of race in admission decisions would undo an accommodation reached in the Supreme Courtâ€™s 5-to-4 decision in 2003 inÂ Grutter v. Bollinger: that public colleges and universities could not use a point system to increase minority enrollment but could take race into account in vaguer ways to ensure academic diversity.
Supporters of affirmative action reacted with alarm to the courtâ€™s decision to hear the case. â€œI think itâ€™s ominous,â€ said Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, who as president of the University of Michigan was a defendant in the Grutter case. â€œIt threatens to undo several decades of effort within higher education to build a more integrated and just and educationally enriched environment.â€
Opponents saw an opportunity to strike a decisive blow on an issue that had partly faded from view. â€œAny form of discrimination, whether itâ€™s for or against, is wrong,â€ said Hans von Spakovsky, a legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, who added that his daughter was applying to college. â€œThe idea that she might be discriminated against and not be admitted because of her race is incredible to me.â€
Arguments in the new case are likely to be heard just before the presidential election in November, and they may force the candidates to weigh in on a long dormant and combustible issue that has divided the electorate. There was little immediate reaction from the campaign trail and in official Washington on Tuesday, which may be attributable to the political risks the issue presents to both Democrats and Republicans.
Some polls show that a narrow majority of Americans support some forms of affirmative action, though much depends on how the question is framed, and many people have at least some reservations.
The new case, Fisher v. University of Texas, No. 11-345, was brought by Abigail Fisher, a white student who says the University of Texas denied her admission because of her race. The case has idiosyncrasies that may limit its reach, but it also has the potential to eliminate diversity as a rationale sufficient to justify any use of race in admission decisions â€”Â the rationale the court endorsed in the Grutter decision. Diversity, Justice Sandra Day Oâ€™Connor wrote, encourages lively classroom discussions, fosters cross-racial harmony and cultivates leaders seen as legitimate. But critics say there is only a weak link between racial and academic diversity.