Democrats urge Supreme Court to uphold affirmative action in college admissions

A group of Democratic lawmakers on Monday urged the Supreme Court to uphold affirmative action in higher education next term when the justices review challenges to race-conscious admissions policies at two U.S. colleges.

Rep. Bobby Scott (Va.), who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, led a group of 65 House Democrats in signing on to an amicus brief that asked the justices to reject legal challenges aimed at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina.

“Narrowly tailored admissions policies that recognize race as one criterion — out of many criteria for evaluating prospective students — are a key tool to realize diverse learning environments and address continued educational inequity,” Scott said in a statement. “Moreover, research has confirmed that diverse campuses not only support underserved students, but also provide all students with a quality, well-rounded education.”

The disputes arose after a conservative-backed group, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), sued Harvard and the University of North Carolina, alleging the schools illegally discriminate against Asian American applicants.

SFFA alleges that Asian American applicants are held to a higher academic standard than other students. The group argues that Asian Americans are disadvantaged in the application process due to receiving lower “personal ratings” and are admitted at a lower rate than white applicants despite having higher test scores on average.

SFFA has asked the court to overturn Grutter v. Bollinger, a 2003 decision in which the Supreme Court upheld the right of college admissions boards to factor in applicants’ race in order to benefit minority groups and enhance diversity.

“Grutter’s core holding — that universities can use race in admissions to pursue student-body diversity — is plainly wrong,” the group wrote in court papers. The challengers say their case against Harvard’s policy gives the court an “ideal vehicle” for reevaluating its stance on affirmative action given the school’s outsize role in past rulings.

Harvard, in court papers, denied that its policy is discriminatory. The school accused SFFA of a brazen attempt to upend decades of precedent allowing schools to promote on-campus diversity by considering the racial makeup of their student bodies.

“Having failed to make the case that Harvard’s admissions practices contravene the court’s precedents governing the use of race in admissions, SFFA asks the court to overthrow them,” Harvard wrote in a filing last year. “But SFFA offers no legitimate justification for such an extraordinary step.”

In 2019, a Boston-based federal judge rejected SFFA’s bid, finding Harvard’s admissions program was lawful. That decision was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, prompting SFFA’s appeal to the Supreme Court. 

The group lodged a similar complaint against admissions practices at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of the country’s top-rated public universities. The challengers lost in a federal district court and, on appeal, skipped over an intermediate federal court and petitioned the Supreme Court directly.