What You Need to Know About the Supreme Court's Affirmative Action Case

Affirmative action may be in trouble in the Supreme Court due to a case with the University of Texas. This is the second time in three years that the court is ruling about the constitutionality of affirmative action in college admissions.

The lawsuit was brought on by Abigail Fisher, a white student who was denied from the University of Texas at Austin in 2008. In 2012, when the case originally reached the Supreme Court, it was sent back to lower courts for review. Fisher graduated from Louisana State University, but did not drop her case against University of Texas. Fisher claims she was denied admission because of her race.

This ruling could affect affirmative action in the college system nationwide.


Already, eight states have banned affirmative action and race altogether as a factor in college admissions. Enrollment of minority students has gone down since the bans in several of those states.

“Most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas,”  said Justice Antonin Scalia. “They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them.”

This argument stems from the idea that some students of color are "mismatched" to a college system that doesn't fit their academic standards. The argument about "mismatch" and whether affirmative action is effective is likely to crop up in the rulings going forward, although it has previously not been a part of the court's decision-making on affirmative action. Several politicians and advocates have denounced Scalia's comments as racist.

"We were alarmed and extraordinarily disappointed to hear a justice of the Supreme Court make comments that were laden with racial prejudice and that were based on an assumption of racial inferiority," Janai Nelson, associate director-counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, told the LA Times. "There is no other way to slice it. To suggest African Americans are unable to compete in the competitive institutions of higher learning is insulting and blatantly contrary to the evidence."

Meanwhile, black college graduates have approached the Supreme Court case with humor, using the hashtag #StayMadAbby.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. brought up the admissions policy of the University of Texas, which automatically grants admission to students in the top 10 percent of their high school class. These students account for 75 percent of the student body at the university. Justice Alito noted that this policy affects diversity indirectly, because many of the state's high schools are already not diverse. 

Justice Elena Kagan has been excused from the case because she defended affirmative action as President Obama's solicitor general. 

"I thought that what they’re looking for is leaders in diversity, not just of race, but of experiences generally,” said Justice Sonia Sotomayer. She argued that colleges and universities are not considering race any more than other factors that influence classroom diversity.

The court's official ruling is expected by June.