The Supreme Court on Thursday ended affirmative action in college admissions but allowed the nation’s military service academies to continue using race in their selection process to ensure racial diversity.

The justices, in a 6-3 majority ruling, noted that the federal government had urged the court to allow the service academies to continue considering race in admissions.

“No military academy is a party to these cases, however, and none of the courts below addressed the propriety of race-based admissions systems in that context,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in a footnote in majority opinion. “This opinion also does not address the issue, in light of the potentially distinct interests that military academies may present.”

At the same time, the court’s conservative majority overturned racially admissions plans at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, the nation’s oldest private and public colleges, respectively.

The overall ruling will force institutions of higher education to look for new ways to achieve diverse student bodies.

Roberts said that for too long, universities have “concluded, wrongly, that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned but the color of their skin. Our constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.”

The court considered arguments for and against the use of affirmative action in the military academies from former top military leaders and veterans.

Last year a group of former leaders, including former chiefs of staff, six former superintendents of the Army, Navy and Air Force academies and 17 retired four-star generals, filed a brief arguing that affirmative action was necessary for national security

“Because most of the military’s officer corps come from service academies or ROTC, the diversity of these institutions and programs directly impacts the diversity of our military’s leadership,” The Hill reported, quoting from the brief. “History has shown that placing a diverse Armed Forces under the command of a homogeneous leadership is a recipe of internal resentment, discord, and violence.” 

A separate brief — filed by a group of veterans including Medal of Honor recipients, and former service academy leaders — argued that affirmative action was detrimental to the service, the Military Times reported.

“As in the military generally, to the extent racial preferences have been employed at our military academies, they have been costly, inefficient and, in some instances, have reduced quality,” the Military Times quoted brief as saying. “They have also ill served the intended minority-beneficiaries, who have failed in disproportionate numbers and have not increased combat effectiveness.”

The Supreme Court had twice upheld race-conscious college admissions programs in the past 20 years, including as recently as 2016.

But that was before the three appointees of former President Donald Trump joined the court. At arguments in late October, all six conservative justices expressed doubts about the practice, which had been upheld under Supreme Court decisions reaching back to 1978.

Lower courts also had upheld the programs at both UNC and Harvard, rejecting claims that the schools discriminated against white and Asian American applicants.

Justice Clarence Thomas — the nation’s second Black justice, who had long called for an end to affirmative action — wrote separately that the decision “sees the universities’ admissions policies for what they are: rudderless, race-based preferences designed to ensure a particular racial mix in their entering classes.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in dissent that the decision “rolls back decades of precedent and momentous progress.” 

Both Thomas and Sotomayor, the two justices who have acknowledged affirmative action played a role in their admissions to college and law school, took the unusual step of reading a summary of their opinions aloud in the courtroom.

In a separate dissent, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson — the court’s first Black female justice — called the decision “truly a tragedy for us all.”

Jackson, who sat out the Harvard case because she had been a member of an advisory governing board, wrote, “With let-them-eat-cake obliviousness, today, the majority pulls the ripcord and announces ‘colorblindness for all’ by legal fiat. But deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.”

The vote was 6-3 in the North Carolina case and 6-2 in the Harvard case. Justice Elena Kagan was the other dissenter.

Contributing: The Associated Press

(United States Military Academy)

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