The Supreme Court brokered a compromise on affirmative action in college admissions Monday, telling courts to look more closely at the justifications for such programs but keeping alive for now the use of race as a factor to achieve diversity.
The high court voted 7-1 to send the University of Texas' race-conscious admissions plan back for further judicial view, and told the lower court to apply strict scrutiny, the toughest judicial evaluation of whether a government's action is allowed.
"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,' " wrote Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.
The decision could spawn challenges to similar admissions decisions elsewhere, but stopped short of ruling out the use of race, as affirmative action opponents had urged.
The ruling likely came of sharp disagreements among the justices that are absent from Kennedy's 13-page opinion. The case was argued in October.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the only dissenter, saying the lower courts already had performed the tasks the Supreme Court set out. Justice Clarence Thomas continued to note his belief that affirmative action programs are unconstitutional.
The fight over diversity at the University of Texas was one of the most controversial of the term, with liberals defending a university's right to assemble racially diverse student bodies and conservatives worrying about the constitutional rights of those who are denied admission because of their race.
The court last ruled on affirmative action in university admissions in 2003, when a divided court in Grutter v. Bollinger approved a limited use of race by the University of Michigan Law School to achieve a "critical mass" of diversity that benefits all students.
The University of Texas at Austin admits about 75 percent of its freshmen based on their graduation rankings from Texas high schools. Because many of the state's high schools are dominated by one race or ethnicity, this has created a diverse applicant pool.
For the remaining slots, it uses a "holistic" evaluation of applicants that includes race as one of many factors.
A white applicant, Abigail Fisher, did not make the cutoff for automatic admission, and said the attempts to boost the number of African American and Hispanic students cost her a spot in the freshman class of 2008.
Fisher subsequently attended and graduated from Louisiana State University.
The court since 1978 has recognized that promoting diversity on the nation's campuses allows universities to give some consideration to an applicant's race, which normally would be unconstitutional.