The Supreme Court declined on Friday to temporarily block race-conscious admissions at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, clearing the way for the school to continue considering race as a factor in selecting the class that will enroll in the fall.
The court’s order rejected a request for emergency relief from Students for Fair Admissions, a conservative group that has repeatedly challenged affirmative action in college admissions, as a lawsuit moves forward. It had asked the justices to act swiftly because West Point was poised to stop accepting applications on Jan. 31.
The court’s order said that the record was “underdeveloped” and that the court’s denial “should not be construed as expressing any view on the merits of the constitutional question,” signaling that the justices could consider the issue in the future. There were no noted dissents.
Students for Fair Admissions successfully challenged race-conscious admissions at Harvard and the University of North Carolina during the court’s last term, effectively ending a policy that colleges across the nation had relied on for decades to increase racial diversity.
In June, the justices, in a 6-to-3 decision split along ideological lines, declared that the admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina were unlawful.
In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., in a footnote, limited the reach of the decision by exempting military academies.
The court’s decision did not extend to those institutions, which include West Point, the Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy, because they have “potentially distinct interests,” he wrote.
The founder of Students for Fair Admissions, Edward Blum, appears to have tailored the challenge to focus on that exemption.
Less than three months after the decision was announced, Students for Fair Admissions filed suit against West Point, claiming that the institution’s admissions practices violated the Constitution.
Students for Fair Admissions contended that the government had misinterpreted Chief Justice Roberts’s footnote as an exception for military academies. “Far from a carve-out,” the group said in its petition seeking relief, the court’s decision curtailing race-conscious admissions did not address military academies only because the Supreme Court “didn’t know how they used race.”
Admissions at the country’s oldest military academy violated the standard established in the Harvard case “worse than Harvard itself,” the group argued.
It said that West Point acted with “unchecked racial discrimination,” awarding racial preference to three groups of applicants: Black, Hispanic and Native American candidates. The petition added that the school “uses race to determine which office reviews applications, how many early offers it makes and what scores applicants need to get.”
Students for Fair Admissions urged the court to act quickly because “every year this case languishes in discovery, trial or appeals, West Point will label and sort thousands more applicants based on their skin color.”
In a brief for the government, Solicitor General Elizabeth B. Prelogar said the current admissions process at West Point should stay in place, arguing that the request by Students for Fair Admissions would force the academy “to jettison admissions procedures that the Army has deemed a military imperative for generations.”
It described the Jan. 31 deadline as arbitrary because West Point had been reviewing applications since August and had “already issued offers to hundreds of candidates,” making up a substantive portion of the slots for the class of 2028.
Racial diversity among military leaders was vital for national security, the brief added.
“For more than 40 years, our nation’s military leaders have determined that a diverse Army officer corps is a national-security imperative and that achieving that diversity requires limited consideration of race in selecting those who join the Army as cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point,” Ms. Prelogar wrote.
“A lack of diversity in leadership can jeopardize the Army’s ability to win wars,” she added, citing how “decades of unaddressed internal racial tension erupted during the Vietnam War.”
The Biden administration touched on military academies when it filed a brief in support of Harvard and North Carolina last term. White service members account for 53 percent of the active-duty military overall, but 73 percent of officers, the government said, noting that by contrast, Black service members make up 18 percent of the active force but 8 percent of officers. About one in five officers comes from one of the military academies.
West Point heralds the diversity of its student body on its website. The most recently enrolled class, slated to graduate in 2027, includes about 1,250 students. Roughly 38 percent are racial minorities, including 127 African Americans, 137 Hispanic Americans, 170 Asian Americans and 18 Native Americans.
Anemona Hartocollis contributed reporting.