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Supreme Court hears oral arguments on Affirmative Action case

Published: October 11, 2012
Section: Front Page, News

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments challenging affirmative action on Wednesday in the case of Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin.

In Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003, the Court—under Justice Sandra Day O’Connor—upheld the University of Michigan Law School’s use of limited racial preference, ruling that race could be a factor in admissions, although not the determining factor.

In March, Senior Vice President for Students and Enrollment Andrew Flagel said that no matter what the court decides, Brandeis will not have to drastically change its admissions standards. Because Brandeis receives federal funding, any mandate from the court will affect its behavior.

“Unlike University of Michigan and some others,” Flagel said in a March interview, “where it’s a very overt effort to fill a certain number of requisite slots with a certain number of students from different backgrounds, that’s not been the case [at Brandeis].”

“It would be impossible for me to say that race is not a factor, but it’s also a bit of a misleading concept to say that race is a direct factor, because in reality what we do is evaluate applicants very comprehensively and holistically,” he added.

While few believe that the Grutter case will be reversed, some, including Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, suspect that it may become inert by the court’s new ruling, which is set to come out this June.

Sotomayor told Fisher’s lawyer about the current legal precedent set in 2003, “You’re trying to gut it.”

The prosecution must prove that the University of Texas differs in its methods from that of Michigan’s or other universities’ that abide by current rulings. The plaintiff’s lawyers assert that the University of Texas’ concept of “critical mass” differs little in practice from a quota system.

The ethical debate on affirmative action continues in the Supreme Court, as it has for more than three decades. Chief Justice John Roberts questioned the “logical endpoint” of affirmative action. “When will I know that you’ve reached a critical mass?” Roberts asked.

Roberts, as well as Justices Scalia and and Alito expressed reservation toward University of Texas’ urging for diversity, even in small classroom settings, USA Today reported.

During the arguments, Justice Breyer expressed concern about the large scale implications for so many colleges that come with revisiting the Grutter decision.

“There are several thousand admissions officers in the United States—several thousand universities—and what is it we’re going to say here that wasn’t already said in Grutter that isn’t going to take hundreds or thousands of these people and have Federal judges dictating the policy of admission of all these universities?” Breyer asked.