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Harvard Asks Justices to Uphold Affirmative Action in Supreme Court Brief

The Supreme Court will hear lawsuits challenging affirmative action at Harvard and the University of North Carolina in the fall.
The Supreme Court will hear lawsuits challenging affirmative action at Harvard and the University of North Carolina in the fall. By James S. Bikales
By Rahem D. Hamid and Nia L. Orakwue, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard offered a full-throated defense of the Supreme Court’s past rulings upholding affirmative action in a brief submitted to the court on Monday, asking justices to reject a lawsuit that seeks to ban race-conscious admissions.

Harvard’s filing comes in response to a brief submitted in May by the anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions, which is suing Harvard and the University of North Carolina over their race-conscious admissions practices. The Supreme Court agreed to take up the cases in January, threatening the future of affirmative action in American higher education.

SFFA, which argues that Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants, has asked the court to overturn past precedent upholding the consideration of race in college admissions.

In a 64-page brief filed Monday, Harvard rejected SFFA’s assertion that the College violates the Fourteenth Amendment by considering race in its admissions process. The University defended its practices, noting that lower courts ruled that it does not discriminate against Asian-American applicants.

“Nothing in the text or history of the Fourteenth Amendment suggests that universities must uniquely exclude race from the multitude of factors considered in assembling a class of students best able to learn from each other,” the brief said.

The brief argues that “Harvard’s admissions program fully complies with the Court’s holdings” in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, Grutter v. Bollinger, and Fisher v. University of Texas — the three landmark Supreme Court cases permitting the use of race in college admissions.

“Those decisions were correct then and remain correct today,” the brief states. “Our Constitution promises ‘equal protection of the laws.’ It does not require us to disregard the commonsense reality that race is one among many things that shape life experiences in meaningful ways.”

In a statement Monday, University President Lawrence S. Bacow said the filing makes “a powerful case that enrolling a diverse student body is central to fulfilling our educational mission.”

“We remain steadfast in our belief that every college and university must retain the freedom and flexibility to create the diverse educational communities that will prepare their students for the opportunities and challenges they will confront in an increasingly diverse society,” Bacow wrote.

SFFA first sued Harvard in 2014, arguing that the College’s race-conscious admissions process violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits institutions that receive federal funds from discriminating “on the grounds of race, color, or national origin.” The group filed a similar suit against UNC, a public university.

Lower courts have ruled in favor of both Harvard and UNC. The Supreme Court agreed to take up the lawsuits together in January, before separating them last week.

“Harvard has repeatedly studied and continues to evaluate the importance of student-body diversity to its educational objectives and whether a race-conscious admissions process remains necessary to achieve them,” the school’s Monday brief said. “But as the district court observed, ‘we are not there yet.’”

“No alternative is presently workable,” the brief states. “Until that changes, Harvard must be allowed to consider race as one of many characteristics in admissions to achieve the compelling benefits of student-body diversity.”

UNC submitted a separate brief to the court on Monday evening outlining similar arguments.

Several organizations have already filed amicus briefs calling on the court to uphold affirmative action, including the NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and 25 Harvard student and alumni groups.

All amicus briefs in support of Harvard and UNC are due to the Supreme Court by August 1. SFFA’s reply is due on August 24. The court is expected to hear the case this fall.

—Staff writer Rahem D. Hamid can be reached at rahem.hamid@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Nia L. Orakwue can be reached at nia.orakwue@thecrimson.com.

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