WHAT IS THE SUPREME COURT?
The Constitution of the United States divides the federal government into three branches. The legislative branch includes the Senate and House of Representatives, whose terms are six years and two years respectively. The President of the United States represents the executive branch and has a four-year term. And the judicial branch includes the Supreme Court of the United States, which is a lifetime term.
The United States Supreme Court is the highest federal court of the United States. Established pursuant to Article III of the United States Constitution in 1789. It has original jurisdiction over a narrow range of cases, including suits between two or more states. It also has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all federal and state court cases that involve a point of federal law.
Early on, 2023 was seen as a political off year because the legislative and executive branches are usually the focus. However landmark decisions during the 2022-2023 Supreme Court term have shown otherwise. Throughout the year, the judicial branch of the federal government has remained a trending topic. One of the most significant decisions was Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard.
The history of this case spans six decades, beginning in 1978 with Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. In the Bakke case, the Supreme Court ruled affirmative action could be used as a determining factor in college admission policy. However, at this time it also ruled the racial quota system at the University of California, Davis School of Medicine, was discriminatory.
In 2003, the court upheld the Bakke ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger. However, at the same time, it determined the University of Michigan’s point system, which favored “underrepresented minorities,” was unconstitutional. Later, in 2013 and 2016, Fisher v. University of Texas rulings stated that scrutiny must be used in race-based admissions and serve a “compelling governmental interest”.
THE BREAKDOWN OF SFFA v. HARVARD
The Students for Fair Admission (SFFA) v. Harvard case was filed in federal district court on November 17, 2014. The SFFA filed the suit against Harvard claiming that Asians were being discriminated against in favor of whites in the school’s admissions. SFFA is an anonymous group of Asian Americans, who were rejected from Harvard. The group was founded by Edward Blum, a staunch advocate for ending racial classifications in education, voting, and employment. This was the first high-profile case of this type to include non-white plaintiffs.
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs claimed that Harvard instituted a “racial balancing” quota limiting the number of Asian Americans admitted to the University. And despite the large increase of Asian American Harvard applicants, the percentage admitted to Harvard was similar each year. In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs accessed data from 2000-2019 that alleged Harvard admissions officers consistently rated Asian American applicants lower than others on “positive personality traits,” (e.g. likability, courage, and kindness). So, despite alleged higher scores on other admissions measures like test scores, grades and extracurricular activities, the lower personal ratings significantly lessened their admissions chances.
Harvard, the defendant in the case, denied engaging in discrimination stating its admissions philosophy considers race along with many other factors. School officials also stated they receive more than 40,000 applications from a large majority of academically qualified applicants. As a result, they must consider more than grades and test scores to determine admission for its 2,000 available slots. Harvard also said the percentage of Asian American students admitted has grown from 17% to 21% in a decade, although Asian Americans represent around 6% of the U.S. population.
THE SUPREME COURT DECISION
The case was argued in the Supreme Court on October 31, 2022 and decided June 29, 2023. In a 6-2 decision, the Justices sided with the SFFA. Justice Kentanji Brown Jackson, a Black woman and Harvard alumna, recused herself from the case.
This decision has been viewed as a setback by civil rights groups, who argue that affirmative action is necessary to ensure historically marginalized groups have access to higher education. However, it is also viewed as a major victory for affirmative action opponents, who argued that the practice is discriminatory and unfair.
It is yet to be seen how this decision will influence education admission and employment hiring in the years to come. What is clear is that this ruling marks the end of an era for post-Civil Rights protections.