Student group from Harvard and UNC cases seeks to block West Point from considering race in admissions
on Jan 27, 2024 at 5:37 pm
The same group that spearheaded lawsuits to effectively end the use of affirmative action in college admissions returned to the Supreme Court on Friday, asking the justices to temporarily bar the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which trains officers for the U.S. Army, from considering race in its admissions process.
Students for Fair Admissions, a group founded by conservative activist Edward Blum, was at the center of the Supreme Court’s opinion last June, holding that the admissions programs used by the University of North Carolina and Harvard College violate the Constitution’s equal protection clause. 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.”
The academy calls the school a “vital pipeline” that provides roughly one-third of the Army’s officers but almost half of the country’s four-star generals. It is highly selective, with an admissions rate of less than 10% for the class of approximately 1,200 cadets.
The admissions process is more complicated than the traditional college admissions process, involving a questionnaire, a physical fitness test, a medical evaluation, an interview, and a nomination. West Point maintains that it considers race as part of its admissions process only in three limited ways – for example, as a “plus factor” when filling any seats that remain vacant at the end of the normal admissions cycle – and that race does not play a role in the overwhelming majority of admissions decisions.
SFFA went to federal court in New York in September, alleging that the U.S. Military Academy’s consideration of race in its admissions process violates the Constitution. The group asked the district court to enter an order that would temporarily prohibit the school from considering race while litigation continued.
In a ruling on Jan. 3, 2024, U.S. District Judge Philip Halpern denied that request. He explained that what the group was really seeking was an order requiring West Point to “affirmatively change and remodel” the admissions process that has been in place for decades. And the group could not show that it is likely to ultimately prevail, a key factor in obtaining temporary relief, Halpern continued, at this stage. Instead, he reasoned, more information is required to determine whether the school’s consideration of race in its admissions process passes constitutional muster.
Students for Fair Admissions came to the Supreme Court on Friday, asking the justices to intervene. The service academy’s reliance on race is even more egregious than Harvard’s, the group said, because the school “awards preferences to only three races: blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans.” Moreover, the group continued, courts are not well suited to decide whether, as the school argues and as the Biden administration contended in the Harvard and North Carolina cases, it needs to be able to consider race to ensure that the armed forces have a diverse officer corps, which in turn is essential for the country’s military readiness.
Instead, the group contended, the only real question is what should happen in the short term as the case proceeds through the courts. Telling the court that while that happens “West Point will label and sort thousands more applicants based on their skin color,” the group urged the justices to bar the school from considering race at all making admissions decisions, and it asked the justices to do so by Jan. 31 – the deadline for applications to the school.
The justices signaled their intent to move quickly: On Saturday morning they ordered the academy to respond to the group’s request by 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 30.