Does SCOTUS always defend Equal Protections?
Earlier this year, for the second time in 5 years, the highest court in the land agreed to hear the causes of Abigail Fisher against the University of Texas. Fisher, a young white girl from Texas, had elected to sue the University of Texas system due to her not being accepted at the main campus, in Austin Texas. Fisher’s case centered on the Equal Protections Clause (which is part of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution), and that her race – she is Caucasian – was unfairly held against her by the admissions team.
Historically, the equal protections clause as it relates to state universities and colleges has been contested time and time again. In 1978, the use of racial preferences in admissions was upheld by SCOTUS (University of California v. Bakke). However, in Schuette v Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action (2014), SCOTUS reversed these decisions citing that utilizing racial bias in college admission was a direct violation of the equal protections clause. The decision was sent along with fierce dissents from Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg, whom argued that affirmative action helped to combat a country riddled with historical times that includes things such as Jim Crow and slavery.
The 2014 decision called for an increase in the use of Race-Neutral policies for admissions, and laid the framework that any such policy would be subject to “strict review”, the court’s highest level of scrutiny available at any given time. This laid an important context for the Fisher case, as it would set the bar high for information and review for any claims made; evidenced by the first time Fisher v. University of Texas found its way to SCOTUS, in which it sent back the case to the 5th Circuit court for additional fact-finding and instructions.
Under this direction from SCOTUS, the 5th Circuit ruled in favor of University of Texas, stating that its “10% admissions” plan was indeed race-neutral, and that it utilized an additional “holistic review” process for the remaining 20% of freshman classes. This holistic plan was found by the court to take into special considerations of an individual by admissions officers, and that though race may be a factor, it was allowable due to the combined approach of admissions starting with the race-neutral component.
Ultimately, SCOTUS decided to uphold the decision of the lower court – stating that the policies utilized promoted “diversity within diversity”, and provided equal protections for individuals due to its seemingly race-neutral and holistic nature. The decision, while perhaps not landmark, is important for the larger higher education community in the United States – especially in states such as Texas which are subject to a higher proportion of segregated communities by the abject nature of their geography and size. In finding the 10% admission policy (any high school student in the top 10% of their class is automatically admitted) acceptable, SCOTUS has affirmed that face-value race-neutral policies meet the “strict review” scrutiny employed. However, in practicality the policy when utilized in states such as Texas, does promote a bias simply because of the natural secondary-education districts which exist. These policies have resulted in a higher level of diversity at the University of Texas, which should be applauded. However, for SCOTUS to find it acceptable that a merely surface level policy meets its standards, when any further exploration would find it operates much different than intended, is a dangerous precedent to set.
In the coming years it is likely that SCOTUS will hear additional cases focusing on Higher Education and the Equal protections clause. Whether the Justices will take a back-seated approach to allowing discrimination is hard to determine at this point, but hopefully, social justice and equity will win out and clear cut precedents will be set.