FIRST ONE @ ONE FIRST

Is the End Near for Affirmative Action?

Posted in Clairvoyance, Law and Politics by Mike Sacks on January 18, 2011

The Fifth Circuit has just handed down its opinion in Fisher v. University of Texas upholding UT-Austin’s race-conscious admissions for those not among the auto-admitted top ten percent of their high school classes.  I flagged this case some months ago and have been eagerly awaiting its result.  In August, I devoted an entire post to the prospect of the Roberts Court granting certiorari to Fisher‘s inevitable petition and, in turn, reversing precedent to rule higher education affirmative action unconstitutional.

Senior Judge Patrick Higginbotham‘s opinion depends entirely on the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision, Grutter v. Bollinger, in which Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing for herself and the Court’s liberal bloc, reaffirmed the constitutionality of affirmative action in higher education.  While Justice Samuel Alito has not faced a higher-ed affirmative action case since arriving on the Court, his vote in 2007’s Parents Involved and his generally conservative voting pattern overall strongly suggest that he will not vote in accord with his predecessor’s opinion in Grutter.

The Fisher decision notably includes Judge Emilio M. Garza‘s 30 page anti-Grutter broadside, more politely labeled as a “special concurrence.”  Judge Garza, a Reagan appointee to the district court, a George H.W. Bush appointee to the Fifth Circuit, and a runner-up to Justice Clarence Thomas for Justice Thurgood Marshall’s seat on the Supreme Court in 1991, apparently wrote his special concurrence specifically for the consumption of the current Court’s conservative bloc–including Justice Anthony Kennedy, who dissented in Grutter and concurred in Parents Involved.

Garza’s concurrence in Fisher begins:

Whenever a serious piece of judicial writing strays from fundamental principles of constitutional law, there is usually a portion of such writing where those principles are articulated, but not followed. So it goes in Grutter, where a majority of the Court acknowledged strict scrutiny as the appropriate level of review for race-based preferences in university admissions, but applied a level of scrutiny markedly less demanding. To be specific, race now matters in university admissions, where, if strict judicial scrutiny were properly applied, it should not.

Today, we follow Grutter’s lead in finding that the University of Texas’s race-conscious admissions program satisfies the Court’s unique application ofstrict scrutiny in the university admissions context. I concur in the majority opinion, because, despite my belief that Grutter represents a digression in the course of constitutional law, today’s opinion is a faithful, if unfortunate, application of that misstep. The Supreme Court has chosen this erroneous path and only the Court can rectify the error. In the meantime, I write separately to underscore this detour from constitutional first principles.

Justice Kennedy spoke to this very “misstep” in his Grutter dissent, arguing not that affirmative action is unconstitutional, but rather that the majority unlawfully loosened its own strict scrutiny standard for such race-conscious admissions programs.  Kennedy’s pivotal position is not lost on Garza, as evidenced in his explicit invocation of the justice:

After finding that racial diversity at the University of Michigan Law School (“Law School”) was a compelling governmental interest, the Court redefined the meaning of narrow tailoring. See Grutter, 539 U.S. at 387 (Kennedy, J., dissenting) (“The Court, however, does not apply strict scrutiny. By trying to say otherwise, it undermines both the test and its own controlling precedents.”); see generally Ian Ayres & Sydney Foster, Don’t Tell, Don’t Ask: Narrow Tailoring After Grutter and Gratz, 85 TEX. L. REV. 517 (2007). The Court replaced narrow tailoring’s conventional “least restrictive means” requirement with a regime that encourages opacity and is incapable of meaningful judicial review under any level of scrutiny.

Ultimately, Garza cites Kennedy five times despite Garza’s own more hardline opposition to affirmative action, which he spells out in conclusion:

My disagreement with Grutter is more fundamental, however. Grutter’s failing, in my view, is not only that it approved an affirmative action plan incapable of strict scrutiny, but more importantly, that it approved the use of race in university admissions as a compelling state interest at all. [...]

Yesterday’s racial discrimination was based on racial preference; today’s racial preference results in racial discrimination. Changing the color of the group discriminated against simply inverts, but does address, the fundamental problem: the Constitution prohibits all forms of government-sponsored racial discrimination. Grutter puts the Supreme Court’s imprimatur on such ruinous behavior and ensures that race will continue to be a divisive facet of American life for at least the next two generations. Like the plaintiffs and countless other college applicants denied admission based, in part, on government-sponsored racial discrimination, I await the Court’s return to constitutional first principles.

In so writing, Garza, who could have been the Court’s first Hispanic justice, makes sure to appeal not only to Justice Kennedy, but also to Justices Scalia and Thomas, the latter of whom has been a vocal opponent of affirmative action on and off the bench.  Neither Chief Justice Roberts nor Justice Alito have yet voiced their opinions on higher education affirmative action from their perches on the Supreme Court, but Roberts’s concluding aphorism in Parents Involved, which was joined by Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito, is instructive towards those seeking to divine the two George W. Bush appointees’ votes in Fisher.

“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” Chief Justice Roberts famously wrote in Parents Involved.  Justice Kennedy agreed to disagree with the statement’s simple certitude, filing his own concurrence in the judgment that put forward his more accepting–but still quite restrictive–take on race-conscious government measures.  As such, Judge Garza was smart in addressing the Court’s entire conservative bloc in his special concurrence: either way, Grutter‘s days are numbered.  Just as Citizens United reversed McConnell v. FEC and Gonzales v. Carhart all but wiped out Stenberg v. Carhart, Fisher will find the Roberts Court once again doing away with an O’Connor-backed, 5-4 precedent by the new 5-4 reality.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: next term is going to be a doozy.

This piece is cross-posted at The CockleBur.

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