Fifth Circuit Disobeyed Supreme Court in Allowing Racial Preferences at UT-Austin

Last year, in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the Supreme Court delivered a blow to the use of racial preferences in university admissions by reversing a Fifth Circuit panel opinion that had allows the use of race in UT-Austin’s admissions policy. That wasn’t the end of the story, however; after holding that the university bears the burden of proving that its use of racial preferences is necessary and narrowly tailored—a point on which university administrators are due no deference—the Court remanded the case back to the Fifth Circuit to determine whether UT had offered evidence sufficient to prove that its use of race was “narrowly tailored to achieving the educational benefits” of diversity. 

Recall that UT-Austin’s admissions program fills most of its spots through a race-neutral Top Ten Percent Plan—which offers admission to high school graduates in the top ten percent of their class—then fills the remaining seats with a “holistic” rating that takes into account various factors typical to admissions programs (including race for certain preferred minorities).

Well, on remand, the Fifth Circuit panel split 2-1 but once again sided with the university, holding that even if the Top Ten Percent Plan already provided a “critical mass” of minority students, the use of racial preferences was necessary to achieve some other special kind of diversity.  The dissenting opinion by Judge Emilio Garza points out how the majority has deferred, once again, to the university’s hand-waving claim that its use of racial preferences is narrowly tailored to an actual, appropriate interest, without having actually proven anything approaching what is constitutionally required. 

Abigail Fisher, the white former applicant suing UT-Austin, has asked the full Fifth Circuit to rehear the case. Cato has filed a brief supporting that petition. 

In our brief, we argue that the Fifth Circuit panel failed to apply actual, deference-free strict scrutiny, failed to require the university to define the “critical mass” its race-based policy is intended to achieve, and failed to require the university to explain with particularity why race-blind measures wouldn’t be able to achieve its interests. Rather than require that UT-Austin even roughly define what quanta of black and Hispanic students is necessary to further its diversity goals–a particularly meaningful task given the significant black and Hispanic presence on campus resulting from the Top Ten plan–the university was allowed to skate on vacuous platitudes about “critical masses,” “tipping points,” “upper bands,” and the like. But if interests so vacuous they read like a parody of a Thomas Friedman column were all that strict scrutiny required, why would the Supreme Court have even bothered taking up the Fisher case?

The constitutional laziness and deference the panel majority showed is striking.  The Fifth Circuit should hear this case en banc and correct the errors made by the panel majority, which contradict circuit precedent in various ways.

Further background and Cato’s previous filings in the case are available here.