The Supreme Court announced one ruling of relative landmark status on Thursday — at least for the biotech industry, in a unanimous decision declaring that synthetic DNA can be patented — but the justices kept America in waiting on three key issues on which it still holds the key to the future: gay marriage, the Voting Rights Act, and affirmative action. The latter of those, well, the wait will last longer than the end of the Court's spring term later this month.
The patent case "was argued in April, so a quick turnaround for such a big case," as Amy Howe wrote on the always reliable SCOTUSblog's live blog. But Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the affirmative action case, had its oral arguments all the way back in the fall, and as long-time New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse writes, "it's rare for June to arrive with an October case still hanging." And while the Proposition 8 and Defense of Marriage Act cases, along with the possible repeal of the Voting Rights Act, will surely be historic no matter which way the nation's highest court rules on Monday or one of the few remaining decision days left in the term, Fisher v. Texas will be more temporary — and tempting — than something to set the tone for the future of minorities getting into college in this country.
The affirmative-action ruling is largely expected to come down in favor of the University of Texas in this strange and inherently flawed case — and it's expected to be overshadowed just as quickly. Indeed, the odds were always stacked against Abigail Fisher, a 23-year-old who sued the school on the premise that she was not admitted because she was white. And Justice Anthony Kennedy is expected to issue the majority opinion, but Kennedy's inherent narrow view on the issue of affirmative is seen as a reason why the nation's highest highest tribunal had already scheduled another affirmative action case in March.
The first major sign that the Court's conservative justices would be doubling down on affirmative action came just five months after the oral arguments in Fisher, when the judges decided to hear the case of Michigan's Proposal 2, which proposed that Michigan's universities eliminate preferential treatment to any individual group based on race, skin, color, ethnicity. This came less than a decade after another affirmative action case concerning the University of Michigan. The conservative justices appear to be pushing for sweeping change on race-blind admissions, and the re-scheduling on the same legal topic is not unlike a company interviewing a second candidate for a job — it doesn't look good for the first guy.
There's also another major facet to Fisher's case that just didn't add up: She wasn't smart enough to get in. As ProPublica's Nikole Hannah-Jones insists, the reason UT-Austing didn't accept Fisher was relatively simple... and her board scores showed it.
One allotted points for grades and test scores. The other, called a personal achievement index, awarded points for two required essays, leadership, activities, service and "special circumstances."
Even among those students, Fisher did not particularly stand out. Court records show her grade point average (3.59) and SAT scores (1180 out of 1600) were good but not great for the highly selective flagship university. The school's rejection rate that year for the remaining 841 openings was higher than the turn-down rate for students trying to get into Harvard.
As a result, university officials claim in court filings that even if Fisher received points for her race and every other personal achievement factor, the letter she received in the mail still would have said no.
Essentially, if Fisher had the bonus points of being a minority, she still wouldn't have gotten in. The justices are expected to weigh in on this part of the case as well, if you can believe in pre-tea leaf predictions anymore.
So Fisher's ruling probably won't change the admissions game, and anyone with a vested interest in how this country deals with affirmative action will be looking ahead to the Michigan case, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action. The state's Proposal 2 was added to Michigan's constitution but became the subject of lawsuits and endless delays before being struck down twice by the U.S. 6th Circuit of Appeals — first by a 2-1 vote in July 2011, and then by an 8-7 vote in November of last year. The Michigan case has the potential to be more sweeping, as it would affect every public school in Michigan — and perhaps sets a precedent across the country — while Fisher's doomed suit would have only applied to students at the University of Texas's flagship in Austin. See you Monday morning at 10 a.m. for this would-be big news — and maybe the real biggies.
- affirmative action
- Abigail Fisher