On Friday afternoon, the justices declined to temporarily block the U.S. Military Academy from considering race in its admissions process. In an unsigned order, the justices turned down a request from the same group that spearheaded challenges to the use of affirmative action in admissions at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, and which now argues that West Point’s use of race violates the Constitution.
Friday’s order also included a relatively unusual statement that provided a possible glimpse into the justices’ reasoning in denying relief. The order indicated that the factual record in the case is “underdeveloped,” and it cautioned that the denial of relief “should not be construed as expressing any view on the merits of the constitutional question.”
In June, the Supreme Court struck down the admissions programs used by Harvard and UNC and effectively ended the use of affirmative action in college admissions. In his opinion for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts indicated that the court’s opinion did not apply to the service academies, “in light of the potentially distinct interests that military academies may present.”
Less than three months later, the group, Students for Fair Admission, went to federal court in New York to challenge the consideration of race in the admissions process at West Point, which provides approximately one-third of the officers in the U.S. Army and almost half of the country’s four-star generals. The group asked the district court to issue an order that would prohibit the school from using race in admissions while litigation continues.
In a ruling on Jan. 3, U.S. District Judge Philip Halpern rejected the group’s request, reasoning that what the group was really seeking was an order that would require the school to “affirmatively change and remodel” its longstanding admissions process.
The group then came to the Supreme Court, asking the justices to step in. It told the court that the academy’s reliance on race is even more egregious than Harvard’s because the school “awards preferences only to three races: blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans.” And while the case proceeds through the courts, the group emphasized, the school “will label and sort thousands more applicants based on their skin color.”
Representing West Point, U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar urged the justices to allow West Point to continue to use its existing admissions process. Military leaders, Prelogar wrote, long ago determined that having diversity in the Army’s officer corps is crucial for national security. To do that, Prelogar continued, West Point must be able to consider race in a limited way in its admissions process. Students for Fair Admissions, Prelogar insisted, has not shown that the courts should reject those determinations – much less “in a rushed preliminary posture on an incomplete record.”
The case will now return to the lower courts, and the school will be able to continue to use its existing admissions policy while litigation goes forward. But the dispute could return to the Supreme Court in the future, and Friday’s order suggests that the school cannot necessarily count on an equally favorable reception then.
This post is also published on SCOTUSblog.