The Supreme Court avoided a major ruling in a closely-watched case on an affirmative action admissions policy at the University of Texas by sending the case back to a lower court on Monday.
In a 7-1 vote, with Justice Elena Kagan not participating, the court ruled that the federal appeals court in New Orleans should take another look at the case of Abigail Fisher, a white Texan who sued the university when she was not offered a spot at its flagship Austin campus in 2008.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the decision that a court should approve the use of race as a factor in admissions only after it concludes "that no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity."
"A university must make a showing that its plan is narrowly tailored to achieve the only interest that this Court has approved in this context: the benefits of a student body diversity that 'encompasses a … broad array of qualifications and characteristics of which racial or ethnic origin is but a single though important element," Kennedy wrote.
The lower court must now assess whether the University of Texas has provided enough evidence to prove that its admissions program is "narrowly tailored to obtain the educational benefits of diversity," according to the ruling.
Bill Powers, president of the University of Texas at Austin, said in a statement that he was encouraged by the Supreme Court's ruling and that he will "continue to defend" the university's admission policy.
"We remain committed to assembling a student body at The University of Texas at Austin that provides the educational benefits of diversity on campus while respecting the rights of all students and acting within the constitutional framework established by the Court," he said in the statement.
The ruling will not affect admissions decisions the university has already made, he added.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the lone dissenter.
"In my view, the courts below adhered to this court's pathmarking decisions and there is no need for a second look," Ginsburg wrote in her dissent, which she read aloud, according to the Associated Press.
The University of Texas at Austin has a unique admissions system, according to The Washington Post. It admits about 75 percent of its freshman based on a "top 10 percent" rule that says students graduating in the top 10 percent of their Texas high school class are admitted to in-state public schools. For the remaining slots, it uses a "holistic" evaluation of applicants, which includes race as one of many factors.
Fisher has argued that the university's policy creates a disadvantage for students who come from high-performing schools, but are not among the top 10 percent. Fisher also said that using the "top 10 percent" rule, in addition to a race-blind holistic review would achieve significant diversity, and that the university should consider those options, according to the ruling.
But Ginsburg wrote in her dissent that those alternatives do not achieve significant diversity.
"I have said before and reiterate here that only an ostrich could regard the supposedly neutral alternatives as race unconscious," she wrote.
Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, said in a statement that although the ruling will require the university to "jump through additional hoops" to demonstrate that its methods for creating diversity are appropriate, it reaffirms diversity as a public interest.
"The Supreme Court again affirmed the crucial role that diversity plays in our strength as a nation – at least for now," she said in the statement. "All students benefit from a diverse learning environment where they can each learn from the experiences of their classmates."