The justices said they will hear challenges to policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina that use students’ race among many criteria to decide who should gain a coveted place in an entering class.
The cases would be heard in the session that begins next October, with a decision likely by June 2023.
High court conservatives have increasingly cast aside decades-old decisions, and their acceptance of the appeals immediately throws in doubt precedents from 1978 and 2003 that let colleges consider students’ race to enhance campus diversity and the educational experience. Lower federal courts had sided with Harvard and the University of North Carolina.
Race-based affirmative action over the past 40 years has helped boost the admissions chances for many traditionally disadvantaged racial minorities. In the case against Harvard, the challengers say those same practices have hurt Asian-American applicants.
The advocates who first developed the Harvard and UNC lawsuits in 2014 aspired to an eventual battle at the Supreme Court, where affirmative action has been upheld only through fragile one-vote margins. In the nearly eight years since then, the bench has gained more justices on the right wing, notably the three appointees of former President Donald Trump.
Chief Justice John Roberts, for his part, has long opposed racial policies, including in education.
“It is a sordid business, this divvying us up by race,” he wrote in a 2006 voting-rights dispute. The following year, when the majority invalidated two public school integration plans, he wrote, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
The Students for Fair Admissions challengers, who lace their arguments with such statements from Roberts and other conservatives, argue that screening students based on race, even to fulfill educational goals, constitutes unlawful discrimination.
The lower US courts that ruled for Harvard and the University of North Carolina in the dual-track cases, however, said the programs used race in a sufficiently limited way to fulfill compelling interests in diversity. The university lawyers, as well as the Department of Justice, had urged the high court to reject the appeals.
This story is breaking and will be updated.