Justices split along ideological lines in hearing arguments on race as part of college admissions

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson recused herself from the Harvard case because she served on the school's board of overseers.

Updated: October 31, 2022 - 3:04pm

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The nine Supreme Court justices hearing arguments Monday on whether colleges can consider race as a factor in admissions appeared split along ideological lines, with at least two conservative-leaning judges challenging the idea of affirmative action. 

"I’ve heard the word 'diversity' quite a few times, and I don’t have a clue what it means," Justice Clarence Thomas, appointed to the bench by President George H.W. Bush, and who has opposed affirmative action, said during arguments.

The justices listened to arguments for nearly two hours on the lawsuits from the conservative group Students for Fair Admissions challenging admissions policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, the Associated Press reported.

Justice Samuel Alito, another member of the bench's 6-3 conservative majority, compared affirmative action to a race that allows minority applications to "start five yards closer to the finish line."

Liberal Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson, the court's first Hispanic justice and first black female justice, respectively, each said that race should be considered as part of a whole application.

If the court rules in the petitioners' favor, the justices may overrule their 1978 decision upholding affirmative action in University of California v Bakke.

The Harvard case alleges that the university discriminates against Asian American students in admissions. The admissions group argues that Asian Americans would make up about 30% of Harvard's student body if the process was race-neutral, but instead "they are limited to around 18-20 percent of the student body." 

Jackson recused herself from the Harvard case because she served on the school's board of overseers.

The Carolina case focuses on how race is used as a "plus factor" in admissions. Lawyer Patrick Strawbridge, who is challenging the standard, said race is a factor at "every stage" of admissions at the school.

"A white, out-of -state male who had only a 10% chance of admission would have a 98% chance if UNC treated him as an African American and a 69% chance if UNC treated him as a Hispanic," he said.