WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court handed down a surprisingly tentative decision on affirmative action Monday, saying universities may adopt admissions policies that consider a student’s race only if they can show it is necessary to achieve diversity on campus.
The 7-1 decision, joined by both conservatives and liberals, tells a lower court to take another close look at the admissions policy at the University of Texas.
But the court’s opinion does not strike down the Texas plan, nor does it appear to sharply limit affirmative action at colleges and universities around the nation.
It does, however, say judges should look skeptically at the admissions policies that give weight to the race of some students.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, speaking for the court, said the justices in the past have permitted colleges and universities to pursue affirmative action to achieve diversity on campus. But he repeated that these policies should be narrow in their impact and must be justified in each instance as needed for diversity.
Federal judges had upheld the university’s policy, but the Supreme Court reversed those rulings and told the lower courts to take another look at the Texas plan.
“In this case, as in similar cases, [judges] must assess whether the university has offered sufficient evidence that would prove that its admissions program is narrowly tailored to obtain the educational benefits of diversity,” Kennedy said.
It is not enough to assume university officials acted in good faith, Kennedy added.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor joined the majority. Only Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented. Justice Elena Kagan did not participate.