(CN) - A divided Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a University of Texas admissions program that takes account of race, finding it complies with earlier court rulings allowing colleges to consider race in pursuit of campus diversity.
Abigail Fisher sued the University of Texas after she was denied admission in 2008, claiming consideration of race violated their 14th Amendment rights.
The university considers race among other factors in admitting the last quarter of its incoming freshman classes.
Under the state's Top Ten Percent Law, it fills most of the freshman class by guaranteeing admission to students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their Texas high school class.
In the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court held that it was permissible to consider race in the quest for diversity on campus.
Their decision then set a goal of doing away with such programs in 25 years.
As for Fisher's case, a federal court granted summary judgment to the university, and that decision was later affirmed by the Fifth Circuit.
The Supreme Court then heard the case, vacated the judgment, and referred it back to the Fifth Circuit so that the university's program could be evaluated under what the justices described as the "proper strict scrutiny standard."
By then, Fisher's case had become a defining moment in the national debate over the consideration of race in university admissions, with arguments closely watched by civil rights leaders, university officials and others apprehensive that the high court may be positioned to phase out affirmative action in American universities.
On remand, the Fifth Circuit again affirmed the entry of summary judgment for the university. That ruling set the stage for Monday's decision.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the opinion for the majority, while the court's three conservative judges all dissented.
Justice Elena Kagan recused herself for prior work on the case as U.S. solicitor general.
In his opinion for the majority, Justice Kennedy said the university "met its burden of showing that the admission policy it used at the time it rejected petitioner's application was narrowly tailored" and that none of the alternative policies proposed by Fisher and others with an interest in the outcome of the case had been "shown to be 'available' and 'workable' means through which the University could have met its educational goals."
That said, Kennedy reminded the university that "[t]he Court's affirmance of the University's admissions policy today does not necessarily mean the University may rely on that same policy without refinement."
"It is the University's ongoing obligation to engage in constant deliberation and continued reflection regarding its admissions policies."
Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito Jr. dissented.
The mostly lengthy of these dissents was penned by Alito who said the majority relied on harmful assumptions about race that led to a decision irreconcilable with strict scrutiny and at odds with high court precedent.
In Alito's view, the university "failed to define its interest in using racial preferences with clarity. As a result, the narrow tailoring inquiry is impossible, and UT cannot satisfy strict scrutiny."
Justice Roberts joined Alito's dissent without additional comment.
Thomas wrote separately simply to reaffirm his belief that the use of race in higher education admissions is flatly prohibited by the Equal Protection Clause.
The decision drew an immediate response from presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton who described it as "a win for all Americans."
"It means that universities can continue to make diversity and inclusion central goals of their admissions processes, and means our college campuses will continue to be places where young adults of all backgrounds can learn from each other," Clinton said in a statement released through her campaign.
"Having a student body with diverse experiences and perspectives breaks down barriers, enriches academia, and prepares our young people to be leaders and citizens in our increasingly diverse country. We need to guarantee that the doors to higher education are open not just to some, but to all—and that we are giving students equal opportunities to succeed and thrive. Today's Supreme Court decision affirms a basic truth about our country: we are stronger together," Clinton said.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch also released a statement saying diverse student enrollment is a vital part of America's educational experience.
"It creates a positive forum for scholarship and discovery, offering the opportunity for young people to learn from, interact with, and work alongside individuals of different backgrounds," Lynch said. "It promotes a stronger workforce, allowing employers and businesses to harness the wide range of experience and expertise they need to compete and win in today's global economy. And it aligns with the most cherished values of our country: opportunity, inclusion, and the notion that out of many disparate backgrounds, we are joined together as one united community.
"Our country is stronger, more credible, and more effective when our educational institutions include highly-qualified individuals with roots, cultures, and traditions that reflect our nation's rich diversity. Going forward, the Department of Justice will continue to stand up for these principles, and to work with colleges and universities to promote diversity in a way that is consistent with the law," Lynch said.
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