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Supreme Court case could end affirmative action policies once and for all

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Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Supreme Court on Monday said it will hear a challenge to affirmative action policies in a case that will consider wither the admissions process at certain universities discriminates against students of Asian descent.

The court agreed to hear two companion lawsuits brought by Students for Fair Admissions, a nonprofit group that believes policies that use race as a factor in college admissions unconstitutionally discriminate against certain students in favor of others.

The group claims that Harvard's undergraduate admissions process discriminates against Asian-Americans and that UNC's discriminates against both Asian-Americans and white students. The lawsuits were brought against both a private and a public university to challenge the affirmative action policies at both kinds of institution. Lower courts have rejected these challenges, ruling that Supreme Court precedent upholds the right of colleges and universities to consider race in admissions decisions as a way to promote diversity.

The court has said racial quotas for admissions are illegal. But in a 2003 ruling supporting the University of Michigan's affirmative action policies, the court ruled schools may use race as a "plus factor" among an applicant's other qualities to ensure that the student body is diverse. Most recently, the court in 2016 voted 4-3 against a white woman who had sued the University of Texas' admissions policy. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in that case, citing court precedent to uphold the university's admissions policy.

But Kennedy is no longer on the court. And since 2016, President Donald Trump appointed three new justices, dramatically altering the makeup of the court and potentially giving support to Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and John Roberts, each of whom forcefully dissented in 2016 and harshly criticized affirmative action policies.

Students for Fair Admissions is asking the court to overturn the 2003 ruling, arguing that Title VI of U.S. code prohibits federal funding recipients from using race in admissions.

"We are grateful the Supreme Court accepted these important cases for review. It is our hope that the justices will end the use of race as an admissions factor at Harvard, UNC and all colleges and universities," said Edward Blum, president of SSFA.

In a press release from November announcing SFFA's petition to the Supreme Court, Blum said, "Every year, thousands of college applicants have been subjected to unfair and unconstitutional racial classifications and penalties by our nation's most competitive institutions. These polarizing practices—which a significant majority of all Americans oppose—must end as soon as possible."

"The cornerstone of our nation's civil rights laws is the principle that an individual's race should not be used to help or harm them in their life's endeavors. We hope the Supreme Court will use the Harvard and UNC cases to begin the restoration of the colorblind legal covenant that holds together Americans of all races and ethnicities," he added.

The court is widely expected to hear the case sometime next fall, with a decision potentially coming after the 2022 midterm elections.

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