Olympia - May 29, 2001 - The U.S. Supreme Court today decided not to review a case brought by three University of Washington Law School applicants who claimed that a former school admissions policy encouraging racial diversity discriminated against them on the basis of race.
The decision means that an earlier ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Smith v. University of Washington Law School will stand. In that decision, the 9th Circuit upheld the law school's position that it is constitutional to consider race as a factor in admissions decisions because diversity in education is a compelling state interest.
The Supreme Court's decision not to hear arguments in the Smith case will not alter existing Washington law or the school's current admissions policy. The current law was set when voters approved Initiative 200 in 1998. I-200 outlawed preferential treatment in public employment, public education or public contracting on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.
However, the Supreme Court's decision also means that in 9th Circuit states where it is not prohibited by state law, colleges and universities will be able to continue to consider race as an admissions factor in order to foster diversity.
The Smith case stems from a former UW Law School admissions policy under which the school sought to promote ethnic diversity in the student body by considering an applicant's race as one of several "plus factors" in decisions on law school admissions.
That former policy was based on the U.S. Supreme Court's 1978 decision in University of California v. Bakke and subsequent decisions by the Washington Supreme Court. They held that the race of school applicants could be taken into account if the goal was to promote racial diversity.
The Smith case will now be returned to the U.S. District Court for a determination on whether the law school applicants are entitled to damages because they were not admitted to the law school under the old policy. The court did not dismiss the case because a potential factual dispute still existed about how the law school admission policy was administered. The court delayed a trial on that dispute in order to allow the other legal issues to be appealed to the 9th Circuit.
To read a background paper on this case, visit the Attorney General's webpage at http://www.atg.wa.gov
BACKGROUND PAPER ON U. S. SUPREME COURT CASE
CHALLENGING THE UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON LAW SCHOOL'S USE OF RACE AS A FACTOR IN ITS PRIOR ADMISSIONS POLICY
Katuria Smith et al. v. University of Washington School of Law
The University of Washington School of Law is a national law school, attracting students from across the country and the world. The Law School believes that a diverse student body is an important factor in providing a high quality legal education. To increase the diversity of the student body the Law School adopted an admission policy that allowed an applicant's race to be considered as one of a number of "plus factors" to be added on to an applicant's grades and test scores. The policy was based on a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court decision (the Bakke case) which held that schools may consider race as a plus factor in the admissions process without violating the United States Constitution. However, in 1998 Washington voters passed Initiative 200, which prohibited granting preferential treatment in public education based on race. As the result of Initiative 200, the Law School stopped using race as a plus factor in its admissions policy.
Between 1994 and 1996, Katuria Smith, Angela Rock, and Michael Pyle applied for admission to the Law School. During this time the Law School's admissions policy used race as one of its plus factors. Along with thousands of other applicants, Smith, Rock, and Pyle were not admitted to fill one of the approximately 165 openings in the entering year's class. Smith and Rock attended law school elsewhere. Although he had been admitted to other law schools and was subsequently admitted to the University of Washington, Pyle chose not to attend law school.
In 1997 Smith, Rock, and Pyle sued the Law School and school officials in U.S. district court claiming that the school discriminated against them on the basis of race in violation of the United States Constitution and federal civil rights laws. All three sought damages and an injunction to stop the Law School from using race as a plus factor in its admissions policy. Pyle also sought admission to the Law School-Smith and Rock had already graduated from law school.
In 1998, after Initiative 200 passed, the Law School asked the court to dismiss the claim for injunctive relief. The school argued this claim was moot because it had already stopped using race as a plus factor in response to Initiative 200. The Law School also asked the court to dismiss the damage claim because it did not violate the Constitution to use race as a plus factor in an admissions policy.
The district court subsequently ruled that the claim for injunctive relief was moot. The court also ruled that the use of race as a plus factor did not violate the Constitution because diversity in education was a compelling state interest. However, the Court did not dismiss the case because a potential factual dispute still existed about how the Law School admission policy was actually administered. To resolve the legal issues, the district court delayed a trial on the factual questions and allowed the legal issues to be appealed to the 9th U.S.Circuit Court of Appeals. On appeal, the 9th Circuit affirmed the district court in all respects.
In February 2001, Smith, Rock, and Pyle filed a petition with the United States Supreme Court. The petition does not challenge the Court of Appeals ruling that the case is moot with regard to injunctive relief. The question presented is whether diversity is a compelling interest to justify using race as a plus factor in a college admissions policy. In April 2001 the Law School filed a brief opposing the petition.
What Happens Next
On May 29, 2001 the U.S. Supreme Court denied the petition. This ruling leaves the decision of the district court and the court of appeals in place. The case will go back to the district court for further proceedings on the damages claim.
What is the significance of this decision?
The Supreme Court's decision not to hear the case means that the decision of the Court of Appeals will remain the law in the 9th Circuit. So, where not otherwise prohibited by state law, colleges and universities within the 9th Circuit can continue to rely on the Bakke decision as precedent for the limited consideration of race to foster diversity.