Appeals Court Upholds Ruling that Allows for Affirmative Action at Harvard
The nation's universities have been under legal attack for their admissions practices for decades. Much of the legal controversy stems from their use of race as a factor in their admissions decisions. The Department of Justice and private plaintiffs have filed numerous lawsuits trying to make college admissions completely race blind. In a victory for colleges, a federal appeals court ruled against plaintiffs suing Harvard University for their admissions policy. However, opponents of affirmative action will not stop trying to sue to overturn the practice, especially with a solid majority on the Supreme Court likely in their favor.
Supreme Court precedent has stated that affirmative action is legal so long as race is one factor in the admissions process. It can be a plus factor in consideration of an application, but it cannot be the only factor. If a university makes a decision solely on the basis of race, then it would be racial discrimination. At that point, schools would lose the ability to receive federal funds.
Asian-American Students Claim That They Are Being Discriminated Against in Admission
Here, this case was actually an appeal of a decision made by a federal district court judge. The lawsuit was filed by a group of Asian-American students who claimed that they were discriminated against in the admissions process. They challenged the specific policy used by Harvard as being unconstitutional. They alleged that Harvard holds Asian-American applicants to a higher standard than other applicants and also claimed that personal biases and subjective opinions permeated the admissions process.
However, the district court judge upheld Harvard's admissions policy. The judge claimed that, while the policy was not perfect, there was nothing unconstitutional about it. The judge said that the policy did not have any "racial animus" nor did any plaintiff not get into the university because they were Asian-American. Moreover, the judge also said that Harvard did not have any workable alternatives to its current policy.
The appeals court upheld the earlier ruling. The court looked at the process used by Harvard and found that it was part of a "holistic review process" as opposed to one that looks solely at the applicant's race. The court said that Harvard seeks to have a student body that consists of those who are "compelling candidates on many dimensions." One of these dimensions can include how candidates have faced discrimination in their lives and have overcome it. This would presumably be a factor that favors minority applicants.
The court also said that Harvard was allowed to try to maintain the benefits of the diverse student body that it had already realized. Here, the decision said that the policy was "meaningful" because it would prevent diversity from plummeting at the school.
This case is notable because it had the backing of the Trump Administration, which filed a brief in support of the case. DOJ has been filing lawsuits of its own, seeking to punish universities for practices that have been declared legal by the Supreme Court. The most recent lawsuit was filed against Yale University in October, although that case is likely to be dropped after Joe Biden takes office. Nonetheless, the machinery is already turning in the latest attempt to end the affirmative action policies that have been used by schools for over 40 years.
Affirmative Action's Days Are Likely Numbered When the Supreme Court Hears this Appeal
However, supporters of affirmative action cannot rest easy. This group seemingly will not stop until they have found a way to make it to the Supreme Court. In fact, the plaintiff in this case has indicated that they may file an appeal with the Court. The conservative majority on the Court may mean that affirmative action may be sharply limited or doomed. The last major affirmative action case in front of the Supreme Court survived in a 5-4 decision. That was before Justices Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Coney-Barrett were appointed to the Court. Thus, this case is likely just one more step in a battle that may not end until the Court eliminates affirmative action.
Given the composition of the Supreme Court, that may happen on the case that they hear. This policy may be the first longstanding precedent to go with the new composition of the Court. There are numerous other affirmative action cases all making their way through the court system. One of them will eventually end up in front of the Supreme Court.
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