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High court limits race as criteria in college admissions

| Monday, June 24, 2013, 7:36 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Affirmative action in college admissions survived Supreme Court review on Monday in a consensus decision that avoided the difficult constitutional issues surrounding a challenge to the University of Texas admission plan.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the court's 7-1 ruling that said a court should approve the use of race as a factor in admissions only after it concludes “that no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity.”

But the decision did not question the underpinnings of affirmative action, which the high court last reaffirmed in 2003.

The justices said the federal appeals court in New Orleans did not apply the highest level of judicial scrutiny when it upheld the Texas plan, which uses race as one among many factors in admitting about a quarter of the university's incoming freshmen. The school gives the bulk of the slots to Texans who are admitted based on their high school class rank, without regard to race.

The high court ordered the appeals court to take another look at the case of Abigail Fisher, a white Texan who was not offered a spot at the university's flagship Austin campus in 2008. Fisher has since received her undergraduate degree from Louisiana State University.

Asking a lower court to review the case doesn't mean the court discards its prior rulings on affirmative action, said Ken Gormley, dean of Duquesne University's School of Law.

The decision seems to reaffirm 1978 and 2003 rulings that threw out raced-based quotas but held that race could be a factor in plans to boost diversity in college admissions, Gormley said.

“The court put additional teeth into its strict scrutiny test” for affirmative action in higher education, Gormley said.

The ruling might not cause any Pennsylvania schools to reconsider admissions policies.

A Penn State spokeswoman said the university does not consider race or ethnicity in admissions; the University of Pittsburgh said it considers a number of factors in seeking diversity. A spokesman for the 14 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education said its diversity policies do not resemble those in the suit.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the lone dissenter in the decision. “In my view, the courts below adhered to this court's pathmarking decisions and there is no need for a second look,” Ginsburg said in a dissent she read aloud.

Justice Clarence Thomas, alone on the court, said he would have overturned the high court's 2003 ruling, though he went along with the outcome on Monday.

Justice Elena Kagan recused herself because she worked in the Justice Department.

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