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US to Argue in Affirmative Action Case at Supreme Court

The United States will argue before the Supreme Court this term in support of a Texas university’s affirmative action admissions process and Arizona’s redistricting plan.

The justices on Tuesday agreed to give the Obama administration time during oral arguments Dec. 9 in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, a case challenging the constitutionality of the university’s policy that includes accepting undergraduate students based on racial preferences.

The case, Docket No. 14-981, is being closely watched by higher education, civil liberties groups and law groups, which have filed amicus briefs in the case. Minority Leader Harry Reid and a group of Democratic senators also filed an amicus brief in the case.

It will be the second time the justices hear the affirmative action case of Abigail Fisher, a white student denied admission to the university in 2008. The court first dealt with the case in 2013, sending it back to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans and directing it to use a different legal standard to evaluate the legality of the university’s admission practices. The circuit court again ruled in the university’s favor, setting up the case’s return to the high court.

The Solicitor General’s Office argued in a brief in the case that the university’s policy is constitutional and narrowly tailored to achieve a diverse class. The university’s admissions process would fill most of the class by giving admission to the top 10 percent of each high school’s graduating class, and then select the rest on a “holistic” approach that includes consideration of race.

“The university defined its educational objectives with clarity, explaining that it sought to improve opportunities for cross-racial interaction, particularly in the classroom, in order to fulfill its mission of training the next generation of Texas leaders,” the Solicitor General’s Office wrote in the brief.

“The university also identified an interest in admitting minority students who had distinguished themselves academically in ways not captured by class rank or who had demonstrated non-academic achievements and leadership abilities,” the brief states.

The United States has significant responsibilities for the enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection guarantees at colleges and universities, and has a strong interest in the development of law regarding the consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions, the solicitor general’s brief adds.

The case gives the court options for ruling narrowly or broadly, but it is unclear just how broad the Supreme Court might go with affirmative action requirements. On one hand, a decision in favor of Fisher could threaten the end of affirmative action; on the other, it could focus only on parts of Texas’ plan.

Arizona Redistricting

The Obama administration will also get a chance to argue Dec. 8 in support of Arizona’s congressional redistricting plan in Harris v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, Docket No. 14-232.

The solicitor general’s office brief in that case urges the court to uphold a lower court decision that compliance with the Voting Rights Act was a legitimate reason for population differences between districts.

That case is being argued on the same day as another challenge to a state’s redistricting plan, Evenwel v. Abbot, Docket No. 14-940.

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