Abigail Fisher, right, who sued the University of Texas, walks outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday. The court is taking up a challenge to a University of Texas program that considers race in some college admissions.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments for and against the use of race as a factor in the University of Texas’ college admissions process that could change the implementation of affirmative action nationwide.
The argued case, Fisher v. University of Texas, was filed in 2008 when Texan Abigail Fisher claimed she was denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin because she was white.
Bert Rein represented Fisher in court and presented the oral argument Wednesday morning.
“The central issue here is whether the University of Texas at Austin can carry its burden approving … its use of race as an admissions-plus factor,” Rein said. “The … injury was the use of a system which denied equal treatment.”
In the hearing, it was clear that liberal justices looked favorably upon the University of Texas’ use of affirmative action. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is seen as liberal based on prior decisions, expressed support for the University of Texas’ process as well as confusion as to why Fisher chose to sue the university.
“[Fisher has] graduated,” Sotomayor said. “She disclaimed the desire after her application to go to the school at all … . Injunctive relief, she’s not going to get. So what measure of damages will she get or be entitled to?”
The only money to be awarded is Fisher’s $100 application fee. Fisher recently graduated from Louisiana State University, which seemed to further support the defendant’s argument that Fisher’s presence in front of the court was fruitless. With no substantial damages to be awarded, Texas argued that Fisher had no right to stand before the court.
A previous 2003 Supreme Court decision, Grutter v. Bollinger, upheld the affirmative action policy of the University of Michigan Law School. Should the Supreme Court rule in favor of Fisher, the Grutter ruling would be overturned and state courts would have no precedent on how to rule on affirmative action cases.
“You don’t want to overrule Grutter,” Justice Sotomayor told Rein during his rebuttal. “You just want to gut it.”
Collegiate use of affirmative action is a controversial subject, and the potential removal of the policy signals the need for a new definition of diversity in the classroom.
Daniel Gessner, a sports media major at Ithaca College, thinks that the definition of diversity has expanded to include more than just race.
“I think diversity in the classroom means that everyone participates in order to express their understanding of an issue according to their cultural heritage,” he said. “Diversity isn’t just race; it’s a complex idea interwoven with religion, sexual orientation and any other cultural value that determines one’s identity.”
In an article published in The New York Times, Yale University professor Peter H. Schuck stated his belief that diversity in the classroom does not alter the educational experience of students.
“The idea of racial and ethnic diversity altering the kind of conversation that goes on in the classroom is overrated,” he said. Reading aloud a footnote from his book Diversity in America, Schuck said, “Any experienced, conscientious teacher, regardless of race, could and would get on the table any of the arguments that ought to be there.”
Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative who raised repeated objections to affirmative action throughout Wednesday’s discussion, mocked current efforts to define educational diversity.
“How do they figure out that particular classes don’t have enough?” Scalia said. “What, somebody walks in the room and looks them over to see who looks Asian, who looks black, who looks Hispanic? Is that how it’s done?”
One of the key aspects of the Grutter ruling was that the decision would be good law for at least 25 years, implying that Grutter v. Bollinger should be considered undisputed precedent for future affirmative action cases. However, the conservative nature of the current Supreme Court implies that an overturn of the Grutter ruling is, in fact, highly likely.
Yani Frias, a sophomore business administration major at Ithaca College, said she believes that affirmative action policies — similar to that held up by the Grutter ruling — are the best way to create diverse environments in any location.
“Affirmative action does more for the workplace and for an educational environment,” she said. “If we didn’t have affirmative action, considering that the white population has more opportunities available to them … the workplace would just be white people. Affirmative action is the best way for diversity to be implemented; it’s something we need.”
The overturn of Grutter v. Bollinger — and, in turn, a ruling in favor of the plaintiff — would have a wider impact than just the University of Texas at Austin. Affirmative action policies in private and public schools would be at risk. The definition of educational diversity would be jeopardized.
After the arguments Wednesday, plaintiff Abigail Fisher issued an out-of-court statement.
“It is wrong to discriminate,” Fisher said. “I hope the Supreme Court will decide that all future University of Texas applicants will compete without their race or ethnicity used in the school’s admissions process.”
A decision in Fisher v. University of Texas is expected by the end of next June.
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