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Legal experts say affirmative action ruling reverses decades of precedent

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Experts in constitutional law on Thursday said the Supreme Court’s ruling against affirmative action will change how colleges admit students.

In a 6-3 ruling Thursday in the case of Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, the Supreme Court ruled admissions programs specifically targeting racial and ethnic minorities violate the Equal Protection Clause.

Writing for the court’s majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said, “Eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it. And the Equal Protection Clause, we have accordingly held, applies ‘without regard to any differences of race, of color, or of nationality’ — it is ‘universal in [its] application.’”

Prof. Jennifer Mason McAward, a professor at the Notre Dame University School of Law and the director of the Klau Institute for Civil and Human Rights, said the ruling means race can still come up but it can never again be used as an admissions factor. Neither benefits nor burdens can be allocated based on race under any circumstances. She said court’s ruling goes against at least 20 years of precedent.

“Before today, the court had been really deferential to universities, saying we need a diverse class to get the best educational benefits that flow from diversity, and the court today is much more tepid on the concept of diversity,” she said. “They call it ‘inescapably imponderable.’”

Prof. Steve Sanders, an IU law professor who specializes in the 14th Amendment, said affirmative action cases over the past 20 years have consistently held quotas were unconstitutional but racial diversity among incoming classes of college students was still worth pursuing. Those rulings, in turn, largely followed the 1978 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke ruling. Subsequent rulings had limited affirmative action in other areas but had preserved it in higher education. He said Thursday’s ruling doesn’t force colleges to go completely race-blind but it will change how admissions operate.

McAward said Roberts made clear in the ruling the court’s decision only applies to higher education admissions. Still, she said the ruling likely could affect hiring for government jobs, among other things.

Rep. Earl Harris, Jr., a Democrat from East Chicago, the chair of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus, echoed that sentiment. He said race has historically had a negative impact on a student’s ability to get into college and affirmative action had provided protections against that issue. A review of college enrollment data by the Urban Institute found college enrollment declined among students of color in states that passed laws against affirmative action. Harris said this will exacerbate worker shortages.

“Look at us (in Indiana) now. We have a nursing shortage,” he said. “You don’t think that those decisions made by those people decades ago to tell Black people not to pursue nursing aren’t having an impact on us now? They are. That’s what’s going to happen to us in the coming years and coming decades.”

Roberts wrote the ruling does not prevent colleges and universities from considering race under any circumstances. A student could, for example, discuss in an essay how they overcame racial discrimination and a school could consider whether to admit them based that. Harris said there’s no guarantee that will happen since there’s no mandate to do so.