US & Canada

Affirmative action case sent back by US Supreme Court

Students in favour of affirmative action outside the Supreme Court for oral arguments in Washington DC, October 2012
Image caption Students demonstrated at the Supreme Court when the case was heard in October

The US Supreme Court has sent a landmark case on the use of a student's race as a factor in public university admissions back to a lower court.

The affirmative action case was brought by a white student denied a place at the University of Texas in 2008.

Abigail Fisher said the college policy of considering her race violated her civil and constitutional rights.

The ruling appears to leave unresolved many arguments on the use of race as a criterion in college admissions.

The justices voted 7-1 on the case, saying that an appeals court had failed to scrutinise the university's admissions policy thoroughly enough when considering whether it guaranteed equal protection to all applicants.

Monday's ruling said: "The reviewing court must ultimately be satisfied that no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity."

'Reverse racism'

The Supreme Court's decision overturns an earlier ruling from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which upheld the University of Texas admissions policy.

Of the nine justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the only dissenting voice on the panel, saying there was no need for further review of the case.

Justice Clarence Thomas, the only African-American justice, said in his opinion he would have quashed a ruling a decade ago that upheld the use of affirmative action in admissions.

The court has become more conservative since the 2003 decision, which involved the University of Michigan.

Justice Elena Kagan did not hear the University of Texas case, presumably because she had some prior involvement with it in her previous role as solicitor general for the Obama administration.

Ms Fisher, who has since graduated from Louisiana State University, filed the lawsuit after she was rejected from the University of Texas in 2008.

Students in Texas high schools are automatically admitted to the University of Texas if their academic results place them in the top tier of their class.

Ms Fisher's grades did not put her in that category.

The Texas university uses race and other factors when admitting about a quarter of the annual student intake.

When the Supreme Court heard arguments in Ms Fisher's case, elite private universities such as Harvard and Columbia filed briefings saying that without a legal basis to consider race in admissions it would be impossible for them to guarantee diversity on campus.

Affirmative action, which is known in the UK as positive discrimination, was introduced in the US in the 1960s.

But in the 1970s the Supreme Court heard cases arguing that the measure amounted to "reverse racism" and could disadvantage white Americans.

Affirmative action's proponents say the playing field relating to college admissions remains uneven, despite the gains of the civil rights era.

Many conservatives argue that the policy gives preferential treatment to people from ethnic minorities, in an America which prizes pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.

However, when the public university system in California decided to drop affirmative action in the 1990s, there was a steep decline in the number of minority students admitted to those colleges.

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