June 29, 2023 Supreme Court affirmative action decision

By Aditi Sangal, Adrienne Vogt, Sydney Kashiwagi, Matt Meyer and Tori B. Powell, CNN

Updated 0153 GMT (0953 HKT) June 30, 2023
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12:05 p.m. ET, June 29, 2023

Here's what it was like inside the court today

From CNN staff

The Supreme Court is seen on Thursday, June 29, in Washington, DC.
The Supreme Court is seen on Thursday, June 29, in Washington, DC. Stephanie Scarbrough/AP

CNN's Joan Biskupic had a firsthand view of the reading of the Supreme Court's decision on affirmative action Thursday.

Chief Justice John Roberts didn't waste any time in announcing the decision to gut affirmation action in college admissions, Biskupic said.

"You could have heard a pin drop, and he announces right off of the bat that they are rolling back all affirmative action. And I have to say, there was a little bit of defiance in his voice, even though ... this is something that John Roberts has been working on for himself many, many years, back to his time as a young Ronald Reagan administration lawyer. He does not believe in any kind of race conscious remedies," she said.

"He took bits of history and steered it right towards 'the time is now, and no regrets, we're doing this,'" she said.

He also "kind of warned that he did not want universities and colleges to set up programs that might work in the shadows that might somehow take into consideration applicants' racial backgrounds. It was one of his most robust, strongest statements ever," Biskupic reported.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina justice on the court, "talked about the profound mistake that the majority was making here. She said it would close the doors of opportunity to people across the nation — for schools, for business, for the military; it would have such reverberations," according to Biskupic.

"At the very end, she said, 'We shall overcome.' And it was a mournful robust dissent," Biskupic said. "... The weight of history was so evident in the room."

Justice Kentanji Brown Jackson sat "stone-faced," according to Biskupic.

"Even though they were all trying to hold it in check, you could tell by the tension nonetheless on Justice Jackson's face as she looked out," she said.

The justices spoke for such a long time that they had to take breaks to drink water, Biskupic said.

12:03 p.m. ET, June 29, 2023

Howard University president explains how the Supreme Court ruling could impact HBCUs

Dr Wayne A.I. Frederick, President of Howard University, speaks during a roundtable discussion in Washington, DC, on August 8, 2022. 
Dr Wayne A.I. Frederick, President of Howard University, speaks during a roundtable discussion in Washington, DC, on August 8, 2022.  Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Howard University President Wayne A. I. Frederick called the Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action an "unfortunate decision."

"Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are carrying an outsized burden to diversify so many industries in America. We represent only 3% of the higher [education] institutions, but we are responsible for 25% of the bachelor's degrees," he said on CNN Thursday. "By not allowing race to be considered in admissions elsewhere, you can put an even more outsized burden on historically Black colleges and universities who don't have the capacity to carry that type of a burden."

The ruling will make admissions decisions very complicated for HBCUs, he argued.

"Obviously, we all are going to be kind of avoiding lawsuits, and so trying to have a very sterile process. It is going to be almost impossible, and trying to create one is going to be far more difficult today given this ruling. So I think that we are all going to have to look at the rules very carefully," he told CNN.

"So it is going to be a road that is going to require a lot more resources. I think that for institutions that don't have as many resources could be blindsided by lawsuits about this," Frederick said.

4:09 p.m. ET, June 29, 2023

Ketanji Brown Jackson accuses majority of "let-them-eat-cake obliviousness" and goes after Thomas concurrence

From CNN's Tierney Sneed

Then-Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson testifies during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill, March 22, 2022 in Washington, DC. 
Then-Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson testifies during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill, March 22, 2022 in Washington, DC.  Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

In her own dissent, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson accused the conservative majority of having a “let-them-eat-cake obliviousness” in how the court's affirmative action ruling announced "'colorblindness for all' by legal fiat."

"But deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life,” she said, joined by the court’s two other liberals.

Justice Jackson wrote that the majority had “detached itself from this country’s actual past and present experiences.”

“No one benefits from ignorance,” she added.

A footnote in her dissent went after the majority concurrence by Justice Clarence Thomas, the only other Black justice on the court. 

“(His) opinion also demonstrates an obsession with race consciousness that far outstrips my or UNC’s holistic understanding that race can be a factor that affects applicants’ unique life experiences,” Jackson said, adding that his concurrence “ignites many more straw men to list, or fully extinguish, here.” 

“The takeaway is that those who demand that no one think about race (a classic pink-elephant paradox) refuse to see, much less solve for, the elephant in the room — the race-linked disparities that continue to impede achievement of our great Nation’s full potential,” the footnote said. 

In her broader dissent, Jackson said that the argument made by the challengers that affirmative action programs are unfair “blinks both history and reality in ways too numerous to count.” 

“But the response is simple: Our country has never been colorblind,” she said. 

Read her opinion here.

11:35 a.m. ET, June 29, 2023

Conservative majority says its decision will still allow applicants to discuss race in admission essays

From CNN's Ariane de Vogue

Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in January 2019.
Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in January 2019. Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

While the Supreme Court ruled colleges and universities can no longer take race into consideration as a specific basis for granting admission, the majority opinion suggested that applicants will still be able to discuss race through a personal lens in their admission essays.

"Nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life, so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university," the majority states.

The applicant's writing could include discussion of how race affected their life, "be it through discrimination, inspiration or otherwise," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote at the very end of the opinion.

Liberal justices unconvinced: The three liberal justices stressed in their dissent that even if the court did not formally end race-based affirmative action in higher education, its analysis will make it practically impossible for colleges and universities to take race into account.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said Roberts' reasoning fell far short of what was necessary to achieve diversity on campus.

"This supposed recognition that universities can, in some situations, consider race in application essays is nothing but an attempt to put lipstick on a pig," Sotomayor wrote in her fiery dissent.

“Because the Court cannot escape the inevitable truth that race matters in students’ lives, it announces a false promise to save face and appear attuned to reality. No one is fooled,” she wrote.

11:57 a.m. ET, June 29, 2023

"Indefensible": Sotomayor calls decision on affirmative action "an attempt to put lipstick on a pig"

From CNN's Ariane de Vogue

Students walk through the quad outside the student union at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in October 2022.
Students walk through the quad outside the student union at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in October 2022. Hannah Schoenbaum/AP

The Supreme Court says colleges and universities can no longer take race into consideration as a specific basis for granting admission, a landmark decision that upends long-standing precedent that has benefitted Black and Latino students in higher education.

In her fiery dissenting opinion, liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson, said the decision will result in a less equal education system in the US.

"The result of today’s decision is that a person’s skin color may play a role in assessing individualized suspicion, but it cannot play a role in assessing that person’s individualized contributions to a diverse learning environment. That indefensible reading of the Constitution is not grounded in law and subverts the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection," Sotomayor wrote, in part.

"Ignoring race will not equalize a society that is racially unequal. What was true in the 1860s, and again in 1954, is true today: Equality requires acknowledgment of inequality," Sotomayor wrote.

The decision "cements a superficial rule of colorblindness as a constitutional principle in an endemically segregated society where race has always mattered and continues to matter,” the justice wrote.

While the majority contended that an applicant could mention race in a college essays, Sotomayor said that would fall well short of achieving the goal of diversity.  

In one section of her dissent, she said that the “supposed recognition that universities can, in some situations, consider race in application essays is nothing but an attempt to put lipstick on a pig.” 

“Because the Court cannot escape the inevitable truth that race matters in students’ lives, it announces a false promise to save face and appear attuned to reality. No one is fooled,” she wrote. 

Sotomayor said the majority employed an “unjustified exercise of power” that will only serve “to highlight the Court’s own impotence in the face of an America whose cries for equality resound.” 

“The devastating impact of this decision cannot be overstated,” she said while reading a synopsis from the bench on Thursday.  

In ending her dissent, Sotomayor quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“As has been the case before in the history of American democracy, ‘the arc of the moral universe’ will bend toward racial justice despite the Court’s effort to impede its progress,” she said. 

She pointedly did not use the customary language of “I respectfully dissent.” 

Read her opinion here.

11:30 a.m. ET, June 29, 2023

Obama: Affirmative action "allowed generations of students like Michelle and me to prove we belonged"

In this October 2022 photo, former first lady Michelle Obama and former President Barack Obama arrive to cast their vote at an early voting venue in Chicago.
In this October 2022 photo, former first lady Michelle Obama and former President Barack Obama arrive to cast their vote at an early voting venue in Chicago. Jim Vondruska/Getty Images

Former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama expressed disappointment at the Supreme Court's decision to gut affirmative action from college admissions.

"Like any policy, affirmative action wasn’t perfect. But it allowed generations of students like Michelle and me to prove we belonged. Now it’s up to all of us to give young people the opportunities they deserve — and help students everywhere benefit from new perspectives," the former president said in a succinct statement, also providing links to various organizations focused on equality in education.

In a lengthier statement, the former first lady took a more personal tone.

"Back in college, I was one of the few Black students on my campus, and I was proud of getting into such a respected school. I knew I’d worked hard for it. But still, I sometimes wondered if people thought I got there because of affirmative action. It was a shadow that students like me couldn’t shake, whether those doubts came from the outside or inside our own minds," she said.

"But the fact is this: I belonged. And semester after semester, decade after decade, for more than half a century, countless students like me showed they belonged, too. It wasn’t just the kids of color who benefitted, either. Every student who heard a perspective they might not have encountered, who had an assumption challenged, who had their minds and their hearts opened gained a lot as well. It wasn’t perfect, but there’s no doubt that it helped offer new ladders of opportunity for those who, throughout our history, have too often been denied a chance to show how fast they can climb," she continued.

Michelle Obama said that those students who get accepted into universities due to legacy, athletics and resources are not questioned in the same way.

"So often, we just accept that money, power, and privilege are perfectly justifiable forms of affirmative action, while kids growing up like I did are expected to compete when the ground is anything but level," she said.

"So today, my heart breaks for any young person out there who’s wondering what their future holds — and what kinds of chances will be open to them. And while I know the strength and grit that lies inside kids who have always had to sweat a little more to climb the same ladders, I hope and I pray that the rest of us are willing to sweat a little, too. Today is a reminder that we've got to do the work not just to enact policies that reflect our values of equity and fairness, but to truly make those values real in all of our schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods," she concluded.

11:10 a.m. ET, June 29, 2023

Justice Clarence Thomas criticized affirmative action in unusually personal terms

From CNN's Devan Cole and Ariane de Vogue

Associate Justice Clarence Thomas during the formal group photograph at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on Friday, Oct. 7, 2022. 
Associate Justice Clarence Thomas during the formal group photograph at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on Friday, Oct. 7, 2022.  Eric Lee/Bloomberg/Getty Images

In a lengthy concurrence, conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, one of two Black justices on the Supreme Court, spoke in unusually personal terms as he criticized the use of affirmative action policies by colleges and universities.

Thomas described the policies as "rudderless, race-based preferences designed to ensure a particular racial mix in their entering classes." 

"While I am painfully aware of the social and economic ravages which have befallen my race and all who suffer discrimination, I hold out enduring hope that this country will live up to its principles so clearly enunciated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States: that all men are created equal, are equal citizens, and must be treated equally before the law," Thomas wrote.

Liberal justices including Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman to serve on the court, have slammed the decision in dissent, saying it is willfully ignorant about inequality in the US.

11:08 a.m. ET, June 29, 2023

Here's how each of the Supreme Court justices ruled on affirmative action

From CNN staff

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion on affirmative action for the conservative majority, saying the Harvard and University of North Carolina admissions programs violated the Equal Protection Clause because they failed to offer “measurable” objectives to justify the use of race. He said the programs involve racial stereotyping, and had no specific end point.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson, issued a fiery dissent, saying the opinion “rolls back decades of precedent and momentous progress.”

Here's how the nine justices ruled in the case:

10:54 a.m. ET, June 29, 2023

University programs "may never use race as a stereotype or negative," Chief Justice Roberts writes in majority

From CNN's Devan Cole and Ariane de Vogue

The view from the steps of the Stephen Robert '62 Campus Center at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, is pictured on April 25, 2019. 
The view from the steps of the Stephen Robert '62 Campus Center at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, is pictured on April 25, 2019.  Lane Turner/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, said the Harvard and University of North Carolina programs violated the Equal Protection Clause because they failed to offer “measurable” objectives to justify the use of race. He said the programs involve racial stereotyping and had no specific end point. 

“University programs must comply with strict scrutiny, they may never use race as a stereotype or negative, and — at some point — they must end,” he wrote.