A protest in front of the US Supreme Court on October 10, 2012 as the court was scheduled to hear arguments on Fisher v University of Texas
Washington (AFP) - The US Supreme Court ruled Thursday that race and ethnicity can be taken into account when deciding college admissions, upholding a contested affirmative action scheme at the University of Texas.
The long-running case was brought by a white woman named Abigail Fisher, who claimed she was denied a spot at the university's Austin campus because of her ethnicity.
The court ruled against her by a narrow 4-3 majority, one of its eight sitting justices having recused herself in the closely-watched case.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said universities were owed "considerable deference" in defining aspects of their makeup such as student body diversity.
But he acknowledged that striking a balance between the pursuit of diversity and equal treatment remains an enduring challenge for the US education system.
"The court's affirmance of the university's admissions policy today does not necessarily mean the university may rely on that same policy without refinement," Kennedy wrote.
"It is the university's ongoing obligation to engage in constant deliberation and continued reflection regarding its admissions policies," he said.
Kennedy was joined by liberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer.
Justice Clarence Thomas, in a dissenting opinion, said the decision was "irreconcilable with strict scrutiny, rests on pernicious assumptions about race, and departs from many of our precedents."
Justice Samuel Alito, in a separate dissent joined by Thomas and Chief Justice John Roberts, argued that the majority was "remarkably wrong" in finding for the university when it had not shown "why the discrimination is needed or how the discriminatory plan is well crafted to serve its objectives."
Liberal Justice Elena Kagan recused herself because of her involvement in the case in her previous job as the administration's solicitor general.
- Diversity vs equal treatment -
In 1978, following years of civil strife across the country, the Supreme Court affirmed the limited use of race as a factor in admissions.
It reaffirmed that finding in 2003, but stipulated that so-called affirmative action is legal only if racial quotas are not used.
The University of Texas, carefully threading that needle, devised a policy -- known as "Top Ten Percent" -- guaranteeing admission to high school students graduating in the top tenth of their class.
Most students at the university are admitted under that system, which itself has produced significant racial and ethnic diversity.
But Fisher's challenge concerned another part of the admissions program, which takes into account athletics and other extracurricular activities -- as well as ethnicity.
For opponents of affirmative action such as Fisher, college admissions decisions "should be based on merit and not on any other external factor."
Fisher graduated from a different institution in 2012. But her case continued its way through the courts. It reached the Supreme Court in 2012, but the justices sent it back to a Texas appeals court for review.
"Today's decision affirms the court's earlier precedent and what so many Americans have long understood -- that embracing diversity improves education and our democracy," said Robin Lenhardt, director of the Center on Race, Law & Justice at Fordham Law School.
Blacks and Hispanics, often from disadvantaged backgrounds, are under-represented at elite US universities and those that are enrolled often complain of being isolated on account of their ethnicity.
The NAACP, the country's most influential African American advocacy group, welcomed the Supreme Court ruling.
"Although focused on the unique admissions program that the University of Texas implements under the state legislature-adopted Ten Percent Plan, Justice Kennedy's opinion makes it clear that all universities may seek to provide their students with the educational benefits of broad diversity," it said.
Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton also hailed the ruling as "a win for us all."
"The doors to higher education should be open to every American, not just some," she tweeted.