WASHINGTON — A lawsuit filed by a former LSU student could determine the future of admissions policy at colleges and universities nationwide during the new term the U.S. Supreme Court opened this week.
The justices are expected to tackle several hot-button issues, including affirmative action, gay marriage and voting rights, after returning to the bench Monday.
The affirmative action case involves Abigail Fisher, who graduated from LSU’s E.J. Ourso College of Business in May.
A few years ago, Fisher, a native of Sugar Land, Texas, applied to but was rejected by the University of Texas in Austin. Fisher, who is white, sued the state, claiming the university uses discriminatory affirmative action practices.
Unlike LSU, which has a clear minimum academic requirement for ACT scores and grade-point averages, Texas operates under what is known as the “Top 10 Percent” law.
Essentially, the top 10 percent of graduates from each Texas high school are guaranteed admission to the state university of their choice. After that 10 percent, the University of Texas has more leeway in choosing who attends.
Fisher argues that after the initial 10 percent, the university, at least in part, considers race in its admissions criteria.
Her lawsuit contends she just missed out on the top 10 percent and was discriminated against as a white student. She has declined interview requests by the media.
Texas countered by questioning what harm Fisher has suffered. They argued that her enrollment at LSU and graduation should have brought an end to the lawsuit.
Southern University law professor John Pierre, who has been watching the case closely, said Monday that the Supreme Court’s decision will have far-reaching implications for the country’s higher education systems, but not so much in Louisiana.
This state, he said, does not have a policy of using race as a determining factor in admissions to public colleges.
Pierre, however, said while many will argue that college admissions should be purely merit-based, dozens of schools and organizations have filed briefs in support of using race as a factor. Among them are the Association of American Medical Colleges and several small, private liberal arts schools, including Amherst College, Colby College, Barnard College and Vassar College, Pierre said.
The court is expected to hear arguments on the University of Texas case Oct. 10, roughly three months after the court upheld President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.
Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court’s liberals in sustaining the health care law, drawing liberals’ plaudits and conservatives’ anger.
The court also is expected to confront gay marriage in some form. Several cases seek to guarantee federal benefits for legally married same-sex couples. A provision of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act deprives same-sex couples of a range of federal benefits available to heterosexual couples.
Several federal courts have agreed that the provision of the law is unconstitutional, a situation that practically ensures that the high court will step in.
A separate appeal asks the justices to sustain California’s Proposition 8, the amendment to the state constitution that outlawed gay marriage in the nation’s largest state. Federal courts in California have struck down the amendment.
The justices might not even consider whether to hear the gay marriage issue until November.
Another hot topic with appeals pending before the high court, and more soon to follow, is the future of a cornerstone law of the civil rights movement.
In 2006, Congress overwhelmingly approved, and President George W. Bush signed, legislation extending for 25 more years a critical piece of the Voting Rights Act. It requires states and local governments with a history of racial and ethnic discrimination, mainly in the South, to get advance approval either from the Justice Department or the federal court in Washington before making any changes that affect elections.
The court spoke skeptically about the provision in a 2009 decision, but left it mostly unchanged. Now, however, cases from Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas could prompt the court to deal head on with the issue of advance approval. The South Carolina and Texas cases involve voter identification laws; a similar Indiana law was previously upheld by the court.
It is unclear when the justices will decide whether to hear arguments in those cases. Arguments themselves would not take place until next year.
The first case on the court’s calendar Monday is a high-stakes dispute between the business community and human rights advocates over the reach of a 1789 law. The issue is whether businesses and individuals can be sued in U.S. courts for human rights violations that take place on foreign soil and have foreign victims.
Baher Azmy, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said the 223-year-old Alien Tort Statute has been an important tool in establishing accountability for “human rights atrocities that occur abroad.”
Former State Department legal adviser John Bellinger III said the law has become “the bane of the existence of corporations” because lawsuits filed under the law are lengthy and expensive.
Koran Addo of
The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau and Mark Sherman of The Associated Press
contributed to this report.