by Deirdre M. Bowen, Associate Professor of Law, Seattle University School of Law
The long awaited affirmative action case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, came down with more of a whimper than the expected wail. While much is being made of the limited nature of the decision, the legal battle over affirmative action is far from over. Indeed, the opinion suggests more of a long-path towards the demise of affirmative action through its shifting language and unclear standards. And in creating more questions than it answers concerning how to prove the validity of an affirmative action program, and thus leaving more lines open for its attack, the opinion takes the focus away from the need to design programs which ensure that all students benefit from diversity.
Indeed, Fisher appears to invite further attack of affirmative action. The Court makes abundantly clear that it takes no position concerning the continued validity of Grutter v. Bollinger, in which the Supreme Court upheld the use of affirmative action in higher education to achieve diversity and the benefits that flow from it. In other words, it remains an open question how long a university’s educational mission that includes creating a racially diverse campus will continue to pass constitutional muster. Instead, the Court in Fisher focuses on how the strict scrutiny standard, which is used in equal protection cases, should be applied in affirmative action cases involving higher education. And, even more narrowly, Justice Kennedy uses the Fisher opinion to clarify how that analysis should work when evaluating a university’s chosen method of implementing its diversity mission.