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High Court Sends Texas Affirmative Action Case Back

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

One of the Supreme Court's most anticipated cases of its current term — a challenge to the University of Texas affirmative action admissions process — has ended with a ruling that does not revisit the fundamental issue of whether such programs discriminate against whites.

In a 7-1 ruling, the high court "vacated and remanded" an earlier decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which had upheld the university's program. (Justice Elena Kagan recused herself because when she was a lawyer at the Justice Department she had been involved in the case.)

The case originated with a young woman named Abigail Fisher. She and another student, who later withdrew as a plaintiff, say they were denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin because of their race. Specifically, since Fisher failed to meet the school's academic requirements for automatic admission, her application was evaluated based on a number of other factors, including race.

The justices ruled Monday that the lower court "did not hold the university to the demanding burden of strict scrutiny articulated" in an earlier Supreme Court ruling — 2003's Grutter v. Bollinger. So, the justices sent the case back to the lower court. Essentially, the court did not change current law.

In the landmark 1978 decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the Supreme Court outlawed minority quotas, ruling the University of California at Davis Medical School's admission process unconstitutional for setting aside a number of seats for various minority groups.

NPR's Nina Totenberg said on Morning Edition that the justices had "sliced the salami way thinner than anyone thought" they would. The ruling, she added, was "essentially a compromise between the court's conservatives and liberals and Justice Kennedy." In her words, the justices basically said that "we're sending it back to the lower court to see whether race was a factor of a factor or whether it was somehow the determining factor of deciding who gets into the University of Texas." If the lower court now decides race was a "determining factor," that could mean the affirmative action program won't stand the Grutter test.

More Decisions Coming Tuesday: The court also announced that it will be issuing decisions on Tuesday at 10 a.m. ET. And the tea-leaf readers at SCOTUSblog say it's possible there could be decisions announced Wednesday and/or Thursday as well. As we've said, among the key cases that haven't yet been decided are those involving same-sex marriage and voting rights. The justices are due to end their current term this week.