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A mixed verdict on affirmative action

US Supreme Court's less than definitive ruling in Fisher v University of Texas case leaves many disappointed.
Last modified: 25 Jun 2013 01:05

Those in the United States looking for a definitive ruling on one of the country's most divisive social issues, will have to wait.

On Monday the US Supreme Court justices passed on the opportunity to issue a major ruling on use of affirmative action admission policies at public universities.

That's the practice of considering race and gender when selecting students.

The case involves a student by the name of Abigail Fisher. Fisher sued the University of Texas arguing she was discriminated against when she was denied entry to the university.

Her lawyers argued the school's affirmative action policy, where race is part of the admissions criterion, prevented Fisher from being admitted.

Fisher argued lesser qualified minority candidates were accepted over her application solely because of their race.

In a 7-1 opinion, the Supreme Court ruled the lower Federal Court that last examined the Fisher case, used the wrong guidelines when evaluating admissions policies at the University of Texas and should, in essence, take another look at the arguments.

Race as a factor

US Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the ruling stating the court should approve the use of race as a factor in admissions only after it concludes "that no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity".

The Supreme Court last reaffirmed affirmative action in 2003.

That's when it ruled colleges and universities had a compelling interest to promote diversity and that affirmative action was justified.

However, the Court was dominated by liberal judges back then. Now, many of the more recently appointed justices are conservative in their viewpoints.

Many in the US believe that change in the Court's composition helped this affirmative action case gain traction.

As a result, many expected the Supreme Court would overturn its previous affirmative action ruling.

It was not the case.   

The Fisher v The University of Texas case had generated much anticipation and many in the US are disappointed by the Supreme Court's less than definitive ruling.

Still, the controversy is not over.

Another case

When the Supreme Court resumes after its summer recess, it will hear yet another case involving the issue of affirmative action.

In autumn, a case from the US state of Michigan will be examined.

The court will be asked to consider not just whether race can be a determining factor when admitting students to university, but also whether it can be a criterion in the workplace when awarding jobs and contracts. 

In 2006, voters in the US state of Michigan elected to ban the use of affirmative action.

The Supreme Court will need to decide if a ban on affirmative action violates the US constitution.

The case, once again, has the potential to be precedent setting as the US struggles to decide how best to overcome its long history of social inequality.