Fisher v. University of Texas

PETITIONER: Abigail N. Fisher
RESPONDENT: University of Texas at Austin, et al.
LOCATION: University of Texas

DOCKET NO.: 11-345
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 570 US (2013)
GRANTED: Feb 21, 2012
ARGUED: Oct 10, 2012
DECIDED: Jun 24, 2013

Bert W. Rein - for the petitioner
Donald B. Verrilli, Jr. - Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States as amicus curiae supporting the respondents
Gregory G. Garre - for the respondents

Facts of the case

In 1997, the Texas legislature enacted a law requiring the University of Texas to admit all high school seniors who ranked in the top ten percent of their high school classes. After finding differences between the racial and ethnic makeup of the university's undergraduate population and the state's population, the University of Texas decided to modify its race-neutral admissions policy. The new policy continued to admit all in-state students who graduated in the top ten percent of their high school classes. For the remainder of the in-state freshman class the university would consider race as a factor in admission.

Abigail N. Fisher, a Caucasian female, applied for undergraduate admission to the University of Texas in 2008. Fisher was not in the top ten percent of her class, so she competed for admission with other non-top ten percent in-state applicants. The University of Texas denied Fisher's application.

Fisher filed suit against the university and other related defendants, claiming that the University of Texas' use of race as a consideration in admission decisions was in violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The university argued that its use of race was a narrowly tailored means of pursuing greater diversity. The district court decided in favor of the University of Texas, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. Fisher appealed the appellate court's decision.


Does the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment permit the consideration of race in undergraduate admissions decisions?

Media for Fisher v. University of Texas

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 24, 2013 (Part 2) in Fisher v. University of Texas
Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 10, 2012 in Fisher v. University of Texas

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 24, 2013 (Part 1) in Fisher v. University of Texas

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Kennedy has our opinion this morning in Case 11-345, Fisher versus University of Texas.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

The University of Texas at Austin which is the principal campus which is the principal campus of the university has committed itself to increasing racial minority enrollment on campus.

The university considers race as one of the various factors in its undergraduate admissions process.

And the petitioner, who is a Caucasian, sued the university after her application was rejected and she contends the university's use of race in the admission process violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Both parties move for summary judgment, the District Court granted summary judgment to the university.

The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed.

It held that courts must give substantial deference to the university.

It -- it held that deference must be given both in the definition of the compelling interest in diversity's benefits and in deciding whether the specific plan was narrowly tailored to achieve its stated goal.

And applying that standard, the Court upheld the university's admissions plan.

Now, among the Court's cases involving racial classifications in education, there are three decisions that are of particular relevance here.

These are the Regents of the University of California versus Bakke, Gratz versus Bollinger, and Grutter versus Bollinger.

In the Bakke case, the opinion refers to the concurring opinion by Justice Powell.

And we take these precedents as -- as given for the purposes of deciding today's case.

Grutter endorsed Justice Powell's conclusion in Bakke.

The conclusion was that the attainment of a diverse student body is a constitutionally permissible goal for an institution of higher education.

Grutter also made clear that racial classifications are constitutional only if they are narrowly tailored to further compelling governmental interest.

Thus, under Grutter, strict scrutiny must be applied to any admissions program that uses racial classifications or racial categories.

Grutter concluded that the decision to pursue the educational benefits that flow from student body diversity is an academic judgment to which some, but not complete, judicial deference is proper.

The Court of course should ensure that there is a reasoned, principled explanation for that academic decision and a university is not permitted to define diversity as some specified percentage of a particular group merely because of that group's race -- racial or ethnic origin.

That would amount to outright racial balancing which is patently unconstitutional.

On this point, in today's case, the District Court and the Court of Appeals were correct in finding that Grutter calls for some deference to the university's experience and expertise.

Now, once the university has established that its goal of diversity is consistent with strict scrutiny, there still must be a further judicial determination that the means chosen by the university to obtain diversity are narrowly tailored to that goal.

And on this point, the university receives no deference.

As The Court said in Grutter, it remains at all times the university's obligation to demonstrate and the judiciary's obligation to determine that the admissions processes ensure that each applicant is evaluated as an individual and not in a way that makes an applicant's race -- race or ethnicity the defining feature of his or her application.

Narrow tailoring also requires that the reviewing court verify that it is necessary for a university to use race to achieve the educational benefits of diversity, and this involves a careful judicial inquiry into whether a university could achieve sufficient diversity without using racial classifications.

And the opinion today sets forth in more detail the strict scrutiny process that courts must undertake in these cases.

Rather than perform a searching examination that is required, however, here, the Court of Appeals held petitioner could challenge only “whether the university's decision to reintroduce race as a factor in admissions was made in good faith.”

It held that in considering that challenge, the Court would presume the university acted in good faith and placed on petitioner the burden of rebutting that presumption.

The expression of the controlling standard of strict scrutiny by the Court of Appeals in this case is at odds with Grutter's command that all racial classifications imposed by government must be analyzed by a reviewing court under strict scrutiny.

Gutter did -- Grutter did not hold that good faith would get -- would forgive an impermissible consideration of race and the higher education dynamic does not change the narrow tailoring analysis of strict scrutiny applicable in other contexts.