Last Wednesday, the Supreme Court held a one-hour oral argument in Fisher v. University of Texas, in which our eight justices (Justice Elena Kagan recused herself) engaged in lively debate over the future of racial affirmative action in state universities. (For more on the case, see my post from last week.) Five highlights from that argument:
- Predictably, the Justices on the left–Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Breyer–came flying out of the gate with questions for Bert Rein, Abigail Fisher’s attorney. Ginsburg and Sotomayor immediately questioned whether Fisher has suffered the requisite injury she needs to be able to sue, if (as UT claims) she would have been rejected even under a completely race-neutral plan. As is the case with SCOTUS oral arguments in general, a Justice from the other end (Scalia) jumped in not to ask Rein a follow-up question but to provide the answer on his behalf, countering that Fisher’s injury was not the loss of admission but the loss of an opportunity to be considered fairly by UT. Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Breyer seem convinced that the UT admissions scheme satisfies the Grutter test, and Rein certainly received quite a bit of help from Justice Scalia as the liberal justices continued to press him. On the other hand, Justices Alito, Roberts and Scalia hammered Gregory Garre, the attorney for UT, with Sotomayor occasionally stepping in to offer a helping hand.
- Both lawyers were repeatedly asked what a “critical mass” of underrepresented minority students at UT might be, at which UT would have adequate student body diversity. When asked by Sotomayor when enough was enough, Rein punted and stated that the definition of “critical mass” (a phrase that comes from Grutter) is something that UT and not Fisher needs to prove, declining to say out loud that the critical mass is whatever number of minorities that the top-10% plan captures in any given year. On the other hand, the conservative justices pressed UT hard on its own fuzzy definition of “critical mass,” appearing at points to try and bait the school into admitting that it has a certain number or percentage of minority admits in mind. This, of course, would be an unconstitutional quota forbidden under Grutter, which is exactly what the conservative wing thinks UT is actually using. UT, for the record, thinks of critical mass as the point where minority students do not feel like the spokespeople for their race, which is a nebulous answer most unsatisfactory for Scalia, Alito and Roberts.
- Justice Roberts asked UT’s lawyer, Gregory Garre, about self-identification of race on UT applications and whether the school had any way of knowing when applicants were lying about their minority status. Roberts also wanted to know whether someone who is 1/4 or 1/8 Latino (or 1/32 Latino, as Scalia added on later) could self-identify as being Latino, or whether that would be violating some kind of honor code. Undoubtedly, Roberts’ point was to question the effectiveness and sincerity of UT’s plan to increase classroom diversity, if it has no way of even figuring out which applicants actually are underrepresented minorities. But the flip side of this question seems to undercut Fisher’s argument: if Roberts is right and applicants are fraudulently self-identifying as minorities, that means UT’s student body has an even lower number of minority students than it currently thinks it does.
- Justice Alito questioned twice whether it’s fair that affirmative action is being used to help the wrong group of people. Specifically, he wants to know why wealthy African American and Latino students are getting a preference instead of students from underprivileged or even just plain middle-class families. Alito also wants to know how all Asian Americans can be grouped into one category when some ethnic subgroups are more underprivileged and underrepresented than others. UT’s answer is that applicants can state their countries of origin as well, which the school will take into account–but again, Alito doesn’t seem convinced.
- The big question in all this is what Justice Kennedy thinks, since he is likely to be the deciding vote. Donald Verrilli, arguing for the United States in support of UT, appealed to the swing justice by bringing up his 2007 concurrence in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, in which Kennedy spoke of the country’s strength as arising from the fraternizing of different creeds, races and cultures. However, Kennedy seems skeptical of the UT plan, characterizing it at one point as prioritizing “race above all.” At another point, Kennedy calls race a “tie-breaker “ in UT’s admissions scheme, the same term that was used in Parents Involved to describe Seattle’s usage of race in its ultimately-doomed affirmative action plan.
The bottom line is that the justices are likely to rule 5-3 in favor of Fisher and strike down UT’s admissions scheme, which is going to put universities across the country back at square one. (A 4-4 tie would leave the status quo in place, thus allowing UT’s admissions process to continue as is.) The question is how far the Court will go not just in striking down the specifics of the UT plan but in limiting racial affirmative action across the board. Despite the fact that he invited the Court to do so in his brief, Rein maintains that he’s not asking the justices to overrule Grutter. But as Justice Sotomayor stated toward the end of oral argument, “You don’t want to overrule it, but you just want to gut it.” It looks like a gutting of Grutter is exactly what we’re headed toward. Of course, this is far too early for Justices Breyer, Ginsburg and Sotomayor (whose dismay at Fisher’s arguments was palpable)–but for the rest of the Roberts Court, this moment couldn’t come any sooner and is certainly nine years too late.
Victoria Kwan holds a J.D. from Columbia Law School in New York and has just completed a clerkship with a judge in Anchorage, Alaska. She tweets as @nerdmeetsboy and will continue to post periodically here on legal issues. Rumor has it she and Jay Pinho are dating.