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Supreme Court surprises with affirmative action ruling

Many court observers thought they knew how this Affirmative Action case would turn out. But once in a while, the justices manage to surprise.
Credit: Susan Walsh/AP Photo
Credit: Susan Walsh/AP Photo
The Fisher v. Texas case has been bouncing around the courts for quite a while, but when it reached the U.S. Supreme Court, many court observers thought they knew how this case would turn out. But once in a while, the justices manage to surprise.
As MSNBC's Irin Carmon explained a while back, the dispute stems from a complaint filed by Abigail Fisher, a white woman "who claims she was denied admission to the University of Texas because of her race, despite the fact that a lower court found she wouldn't have been admitted regardless of her race."
The court fight led to a challenge to the affirmative action program at the University of Texas at Austin, which the justices seemed likely to strike down. Instead, they did the opposite: a 4-3 court upheld the policy today.
NBC News' Pete Williams walked through the basics of the dispute.

A Texas law guarantees admission to the university for students in roughly the top ten percent of the graduating class of any Texas high school. To fill the remaining slots, about one fourth of each entering class, the school considers several other factors, including an applicant's race. That last step was the program under court challenge, upheld by the justices Thursday. The school said students learn better when there's diversity on campus and within racial groups. But a woman who was denied admission, Abigail Fisher, filed a lawsuit claiming the diversity standard was too vague to justify making distinctions based on race. The Supreme Court gave a limited victory to the university three years ago, agreeing that campus diversity is a worthy goal. But the justices instructed an appeals court to review whether considering an applicant's race was necessary to achieving it. When that court said it was, Fisher again appealed, leading to Thursday's decision.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in this case was the fact that Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has been an opponent of affirmative action in the past, wrote the ruling defending the university's policy. He was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor.
Justice Elena Kagan, who dealt with this case during her tenure as Solicitor General, recused herself from the case, which is why seven justices participated in the ruling.
The decision, and its lengthy dissent, is available online here.
If the case sounds familiar, note that this is the case in which Justice Antonin Scalia, a few months before his death, suggested during oral arguments that many African-American students are hurt by Affirmative Action because they "do not do well" in "advanced" universities, as opposed to attending "a slower-track school where they do well."
Scalia added at the time that most of the black scientists in this country "don't come from schools like the University of Texas. They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they're -- that they're being pushed ahead in -- in classes that are too -- too fast for them."
In light of his passing, Scalia played no role in today's decision.