WASHINGTON - In a 2003 decision that the majority expected would last for 25 years, the Supreme Court allowed public colleges and universities to take account of race in admission decisions. The court signaled yesterday that it might end such affirmative action much sooner than that.
By agreeing to hear a major case involving race-conscious admissions at the University of Texas, the court thrust affirmative action back into the public and political discourse after years in which it had mostly faded from view. Both supporters and opponents of affirmative action said they saw the announcement - and the change in the court’s makeup since 2003 - as a signal that the court’s five more conservative members might be prepared to do away with racial preferences in higher education.
The consequences of such a decision would be striking. It would, all sides agree, reduce the number of African-American and Latino students at nearly every selective college and graduate school, with more Asian-American and white students gaining entrance instead.
A decision barring the use of race in admission decisions would undo an accommodation reached in the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 decision in 2003 in Grutter v. Bollinger: that public colleges and universities could not use a point system to boost minority enrollment but could take race into account in vaguer ways to ensure academic diversity.
Supporters of affirmative action reacted with alarm to the court’s decision to hear the case.
“I think it’s ominous,’’ said Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, who, as president of the University of Michigan, was a defendant in the Grutter case. “It threatens to undo several decades of effort within higher education to build a more integrated and just and educationally enriched environment.’’
Opponents saw an opportunity to strike a decisive blow against the practice.
“Any form of discrimination, whether it’s for or against, is wrong,’’ said Hans von Spakovsky, a legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
Arguments in the new case could be heard just before the presidential election in November, and they may force the candidates to weigh in on a long-dormant and combustible issue.
The new case, Fisher v. Texas, No. 11-345, was brought by Abigail Fisher, a white student who said that the University of Texas denied her admission because of her race.
The case has idiosyncrasies that may limit its reach, but it also has the potential to eliminate diversity as a rationale sufficient to justify any use of race in admission decisions - the rationale the court endorsed in the Grutter decision.
Grutter allowed but did not require states to take account of race in admissions. Several states, including California and Michigan, forbid the practice, and public universities in those states have seen a drop in minority admissions.
A Supreme Court decision forbidding the use of race in admission at public universities would almost certainly mean that it would be barred at most private ones as well under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids racial discrimination in programs that receive federal money.
In her majority opinion in Grutter, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said the day would come when “the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary’’ in admission decisions to foster educational diversity. She said she expected that day to arrive in 2028. Yesterday’s decision to revisit the issue suggests the deadline may arrive just a decade after Grutter.