The Supreme Court ruled the U.S. Military Academy at West Point may continue using race as a factor in admissions, leaving intact the slim remains of affirmative action in higher education.
At the end of its last term, the high court in a landmark decision gutted race-conscious admissions policies at universities nationwide, except at military academies.
Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), the conservative legal group behind last year’s blockbuster cases, has since looked to demolish the exception.
In an emergency decision Friday, the justices declined the SFFA’s request to immediately prevent West Point from using race as a factor in its upcoming admissions cycle, as the group’s constitutional challenge continues in a lower court.
“The record before this Court is underdeveloped, and this order should not be construed as expressing any view on the merits of the constitutional question,” the court said in its unsigned order, which came without any noted dissents.
Nearly three months after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling, the SFFA began its quest to decimate the exception by suing West Point and, later, the Naval Academy.
A federal district judge in early January issued a preliminary ruling favoring West Point, leading the SFFA to appeal to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
On Monday, a three-judge panel on the 2nd Circuit declined to block West Point’s policies as it considered the SFFA’s appeal in full. The panel handed down its refusal in a brief ruling without explanation.
The SFFA, represented by attorneys at Consovoy McCarthy, warned the Supreme Court that waiting for the case to progress before blocking West Point’s use of affirmative action would harm current applicants, urging the justices to intervene on their emergency docket.
“Every day that passes between now and then is one where West Point, employing an illegal race-based admissions process, can end another applicant’s dream of joining the Long Gray Line. This Court should grant interim relief as soon as possible,” the SFFA’s lawyers wrote to the justices.
Headed by conservative legal strategist Edward Blum, the SFFA brought its lawsuit on behalf of two anonymous plaintiffs who are described in court filings as white males who want to apply to West Point over the next few years.
U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, representing the school, pushed back and contended the group hadn’t cleared the high burden needed for the Supreme Court’s emergency relief.
“For more than forty years, our Nation’s military leaders have determined that a diverse Army officer corps is a national-security imperative and that achieving that diversity requires limited consideration of race in selecting those who join the Army as cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point,” Prelogar wrote to the justices.
The decision is likely to renew concerns about diversity in higher education that have promulgated within academics since the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action last summer.
After that decision, Democrats mourned the day as a step back for college admissions and a roadblock for minority students.
“The Supreme Court ruling has put a giant roadblock in our country’s march toward racial justice,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. “The Court’s misguided decision reminds us how far we still have to go to ensure that all Americans are treated equally.”
Republicans, however, were celebrating the move and argued it put everyone back on an equal playing field.
“The Supreme Court just ruled that no American should be denied educational opportunities because of race,” then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said at the time. “Now students will be able to compete based on equal standards and individual merit. This will make the college admissions process fairer and uphold equality under the law.”
Since the ruling, colleges said they would comply but have not given details on what changes they are making to their systems.
Lawmakers and numerous schools after the ruling aimed to get rid of legacy admissions, the practice of giving preference to students who had family who previously went to the school.
Many see legacy admissions as a leg up for rich individuals and white people who could afford to donate to schools.
“I think the question is how do you continue to create a culture where education is the goal for every single part of our community?” Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said. “One of the things that Harvard could do to make that even better is to eliminate any legacy programs where they have preferential treatment for legacy kids, not allow for the professors — their kids to come to Harvard as well.”