Supreme Court upholds University of Texas affirmative action plan

Ariane de Vogue, CNN Supreme Court Reporter | 6/23/2016, 10 a.m.
The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the race-conscious admissions program at the University of Texas, saying that the plan taking ...
Supreme Court Richard Jenrette/CNN

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the race-conscious admissions program at the University of Texas, saying that the plan taking race into consideration as one factor of admission is constitutional.

The 4-3 ruling greenlights the limited use of affirmative action polices by schools.

"The Court's affirmance of the University's admissions policy today does not necessarily mean the University may rely on that same policy without refinement. It is the University's ongoing obligation to engage in constant deliberation and continued reflection regarding its admissions policies," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion.

President Barack Obama, speaking from the White House, praised the decision.

"I'm pleased that the Supreme Court upheld the basic notion that diversity is an important value in our society and this country should provide a high quality education to all our young people regardless of their background," Obama said. "We are not a country that guarantees equal outcomes but we do strive to provide an equal shot to everybody. And that's what was upheld today."

The 4-3 split Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kennedy against the conservatives. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote his own dissent and Chief Justice John Roberts joined Justice Samuel Alito's dissent.

"Something strange has happened since our prior decision in this case," Alito wrote in the dissent. "This is nothing less than the plea for deference that we emphatically rejected in our prior decision. Today, however, the Court inexplicably grants that request."

This is the second time the court heard the case from lead plaintiff Abigail Fisher, a white woman from Texas. In 2012, the justices issued a narrow opinion, sending the case back down to a lower court for another look. After the lower court again upheld the school program, the justices once again took up the case.

Justice Antonin Scalia sat for oral arguments in the case but died before the decision came down. Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from the case, presumably because she dealt with it in her previous job as solicitor general.

Narrow ruling, but roadmap

"Today's ruling comes as something of a surprise," said Steve Vladeck, CNN contributor and professor of law at American University Washington College of Law. "Given that Justice Kagan recused, and that the lower court had upheld the UT affirmative action plan, I think most court-watchers assumed that the justices took the case to reverse---even after Justice Scalia died. That's why, even though the decision is very narrow, it's an unexpected victory for proponents of race-conscious admissions programs."

"The decision itself is written quite narrowly, and tailored to the UT program specifically," he added. "But it's safe to assume that public universities across the country will now look at this ruling as a roadmap for how to constitutionally take race into account in admissions programs going forward."

Eight states currently have banned the use of race in admissions policies all together according to the National Conference of State Legislatures: Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Washington.