Court Upholds University's Affirmative Action Admissions Policy

The 2-1 ruling followed a 2013 Supreme Court order to re-examine the case.

Abigail Fisher, who sued the University of Texas when she was not offered a spot at the university's flagship Austin campus in 2008, stands at a news conference at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, Monday, June 24, 2013.

A federal appeals court panel ruled against Abigail Fisher on Tuesday, deeming the University of Texas at Austin's use of race in its admissions process legal.

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A three-judge panel of a federal appeals court upheld the University of Texas at Austin's use of affirmative action in college admissions Tuesday. 

"It is settled that instruments of state may pursue facially neutral policies calculated to promote equality of opportunity among students to whom the public schools of Texas assign quite different starting places in the annual race for seats in its flagship university," Judge Patrick Higginbotham of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit wrote. "It is equally settled that universities may use race as part of a holistic admissions program where it cannot otherwise achieve diversity."

The case stems from a lawsuit filed by Abigail Fisher, a white Texan who sued the university after she was denied admission to the system's flagship campus in 2008. The U.S. Supreme Court avoided a major ruling on the case last June, saying the federal appeals court should take another look at the policy in question. 

The Department of Education in September released a policy clarification saying colleges can voluntarily use race as a factor in their admissions policies to achieve greater diversity, as long as they meet strict guidance already set forth by federal officials that no other "race-neutral alternatives" would achieve the benefits of diversity.

The University of Texas at Austin uses a "10 percent" admissions system, under which Texas students graduating in the top 10 percent of their high school classes can gain admission. The remaining slots are determined by a holistic evaluation of applicants, which includes race as a factor.

Fisher argued that the policy created a disadvantage for students who graduate from high-performing schools but do not fall in the top 10 percent of their classes. She also said 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.

The Supreme Court in April ruled states can ban affirmative action in college admission policies without violating the Constitution. The ruling did not widely outlaw affirmative action policies, but allows the eight states that do ban those practices to continue doing so.

University President Bill Powers said he is pleased with the ruling, which he said aligns with the Supreme Court's recent guidance. 

"We remain committed to assembling a student body at the University of Texas at Austin that brings with it the educational benefits of diversity while respecting the rights of all students," Powers said in a statement. "This ruling ensures that our campus, our state and the entire nation will benefit from the exchange of ideas and thoughts that happens when students who are diverse in all regards come together in the classroom, at campus events and in all aspects of campus life."