Supreme Court hears Texas affirmative action challenge

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Wednesday, December 9, 2015
US Supreme Court
US Supreme Court

WASHINGTON -- For the second time, the Supreme Court is hearing a white Texan's challenge to the use of race in college admissions.

Abigail Fisher has been out of college since 2012, but the justices' renewed interest in her case is a sign that the court's conservative majority is poised to cut back, or even end, affirmative action in higher education.

The arguments Wednesday are expected to focus on whether the University of Texas' flagship campus in Austin has compelling reasons to consider race among other factors when it evaluates applicants for about a quarter of its freshman class. Most students are admitted to the university through a plan that guarantees slots to Texans who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school classes.

Fisher says the "top 10" program works well to bring in Hispanic and African-American students, without considering race. Texas says the program alone is not enough and it needs the freedom to fill out incoming classes as it sees fit.

Twelve years ago, the justices reaffirmed the consideration of race in the quest for diversity on campus. A more conservative court first heard Fisher's case in 2012, but the case ended inconclusively with a tepid decision that ordered a lower court review.

The federal appeals court in New Orleans has twice upheld the Texas admissions program and rejected Fisher's appeal.

Fisher's case was conceived by Edward Blum, an opponent of racial preferences. Blum also is behind lawsuits against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina that aim to eliminate any consideration of race in college admissions.

Texas is unique in marrying the top 10 plan to a separate admissions review in which race is one of many factors considered. The university's current freshman class is 22 percent Hispanic and 4.5 percent African-American. White students make up less than half the school's freshmen.

Eight states prohibit the use of race in public college admissions: Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Washington.

The Obama administration, dozens of colleges and many of the nation's largest businesses are supporting Texas in defending its program.

There also are competing arguments over whether racial preference programs actually limit the number of students from Asian backgrounds, who are disproportionately represented in student bodies relative to their share of the population.

The case is Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, 14-981.