Assessing the potential impact of Fisher v. University of Texas on affirmative action programs

February 20

My wife Alison Somin, who is a special assistant/counsel at the US Commission on Civil Rights, just published an article assessing the potential impact of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Fisher v. University of Texas on the future of affirmative action programs in higher education. Here is a brief excerpt:

There are not many dull moments in the debate about race preferences in university admissions. Nevertheless, the issuance of the recent Fisher v. University of Texas case has often been painted as one of them. “In with a bang, out with a fizzle” is the title of one account of Fisher, and “Fisher’s big news: No big news” is the headline of another. But perhaps this perennially hot debate has not cooled down after all, and Fisher is better understood as a cliffhanger—one akin to the ending of Frank Stockton’s 1882 “The Lady or the Tiger?,” which famously leaves the protagonist uncertain whether a beautiful woman or a starved tiger will emerge from behind the door he is about to open.

Fisher proceeds from the premise that Grutter v. Bollinger, the 2003 Supreme Court case that found the University of Michigan Law School’s admissions system of holistic review constitutional, was rightly decided.4 But the opinion calls for tight judicial scrutiny of the means used to achieve Grutter’s approved end of diversity on campus—scrutiny tighter than what the Fifth Circuit and perhaps most other well-informed observers previously understood Grutter to require. It remains to be seen how the Fifth Circuit will thread this particular needle on remand, and the case may well return to the Supreme Court because it is less than clear what exactly this heightened standard of Fisher scrutiny entails. Thus the cliffhanger. Supporters and opponents of race preferences doubtless have opposite views on which post-remand scenarios are best characterized as tigers and which as ladies. In this essay, I explain why the ultimate outcome of the Fisher litigation is more likely to look like a lady to the opponents of race preferences (and conversely a tiger to preference supporters), but that there are enough possible paths that the Fifth Circuit and eventually the Supreme Court could take to make Fisher’s legacy far from certain.

For my own preliminary assessment of Fisher, see here. When the decision came out, I had an exchange with prominent legal columnist Stuart Taylor on this issue (see here and here). As that debate and Alison’s article show, there is wide disagreement on the meaning of Fisher and its likely impact on future cases.

Ilya Somin is Professor of Law at George Mason University. His research focuses on constitutional law, property law, and popular political participation. He is the author of "The Grasping Hand: Kelo v. City of New London and the Limits of Eminent Domain" (forthcoming) and "Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter."
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