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Supreme Court Upholds Affirmative Action In College Admissions


Two big cases from the U.S. Supreme Court today. The justices were deadlocked four to four on President Obama's plan to defer enforcement actions against millions of immigrants whose children are American citizens. The tie left in place a lower court decision invalidating the president's plan at least for now. We'll hear more about that case in a few minutes.

The court did muster a majority to reaffirm its support for affirmative action in college admissions. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has more.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The immigration decision - or more accurately non-decision - means that the president's immigration powers will be resolved by the next president. President Obama blamed Senate Republicans today for the deadlocked vote, once again lambasted them for refusing to hold a hearing on his widely praised Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.

Even without a full bench, though, the justices did deliver another reaffirmation of the need for racial diversity in higher education. By a four to three vote, the justices upheld the University of Texas' affirmative action program. Justice Elena Kagan was recused.

The decision came in the case of Abigail Fisher who sued the university in 2008 after being denied admission to UT. Her lawsuit, funded by a conservative group, claimed that she was disadvantaged because of the affirmative action program.

Today the Supreme Court said Fisher had not shown she was denied equal treatment. Justice Anthony Kennedy, joined by three of the court's liberals, said that considerable deference is owed to a university in defining those intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission. It was the first time Kennedy has voted to approve a race conscious plan.

Kennedy called it an enduring challenge to our nation's education system to reconcile the pursuit of diversity with the constitutional promise of equal treatment. He said The University of Texas had gone the extra mile in experimenting with race-neutral methods of increasing minority enrollment and in the end had come up with a system in which race is but a factor of a factor of a factor.

The Texas system is unique. The top ranking students in the state's high schools are guaranteed admission to UT Austin, and because many schools are overwhelmingly black or Hispanic, that increases the number of minorities at the university.

The university also admits 25 percent of its students based on other factors - SAT scores and grades, special talents in the arts or sciences and race and ethnicity. The decision was an unhappy shock for many conservatives, among them the man who orchestrated the Fisher lawsuit, Edward Blum.

EDWARD BLUM: It was Abby's hope and I think the hope of the majority of the citizens of the state of Texas that this university could have moved beyond affirmative action in creating a diverse and unique student body.

TOTENBERG: Although Blum maintained that his pending lawsuits against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina are entirely different, other conservatives were less sure.

ILYA SHAPIRO: Frankly, it'll depend on who's on the Supreme Court.

TOTENBERG: Ilya Shapiro of the conservative Cato Institute...

I. SHAPIRO: In terms of legal realism, in terms of counting votes, I think it does make it harder.

TOTENBERG: University of Chicago law professor Justin Driver had a similar though perhaps more enthusiastic take.

JUSTIN DRIVER: For supporters of affirmative action, they should be dancing in the street. They will regard Fisher II as "The Godfather II" of judicial opinion.

TOTENBERG: Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, was enormously relieved. She said universities know they'll be under scrutiny.

SHERRILYN IFILL: They know that they don't have an automatic path. They know they don't have a rubber stamp. What they want is some breathing space to get the job done.

TOTENBERG: Harvard Law professor Charles Fried, a longtime opponent of affirmative action, has come to grudgingly see some of its advantages. He notes that the court in 1978 adopted a compromise on this prickly issue - no quotas, no reserve seats for racial minorities but allowing race to be a factor in university admissions.

CHARLES FRIED: It's sort of made no sense, but we've lived with it ever since. And it's more or less worked.

TOTENBERG: Dissenting from today's ruling was Justice Samuel Alito joined by Justice Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice John Roberts. Alito read a lengthy summary of his dissent from the bench, calling the UT plan an affirmative action plan gone berserk and simply wrong.

During the 17-minute reading, Justice Breyer held his head. Justice Sotomayor took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes, and Justice Kennedy stared out at the courtroom audience with a blank expression. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.