Affirmative action in admissions and why military academies are exempted
Washington — The landmark Supreme Court decision rejecting race-conscious admissions at colleges and universities exempts military service academies, an exception that dissenting justices consider inconsistent and that some constitutional scholars say undercuts the majority's argument.
Chief Justice John Roberts noted the court's decision does not apply to military service academies — for now — in a brief footnote in the 237-page opinion. He cited two reasons: first that the academies were not parties in the cases, and second, that there were "potentially distinct interests" involved.
"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," the footnote said. "The opinion also does not address the issue, in light of the potentially distinct interests that military academies may present."
Though Roberts did not elaborate on what those "distinct interests" are, a friend-of-the-court brief filed by thirty-five former military leaders — including four former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairmen — argued that affirmative action in higher education was essential for national security.
The former military leaders asked the Supreme Court to consider how reversing the longstanding admissions policy would affect the military's ability "to serve our nation's security interests."
In particular, they argued that diversity in the officer corps, the graduates of the academies, was necessary because the forces they would be leading are diverse.
"The importance of maintaining a diverse, highly qualified officer corps has been beyond legitimate dispute for decades," the brief said. "History has shown that placing a diverse Armed Forces under the command of homogenous leadership is a recipe for internal resentment, discord, and violence."
"By contrast, units that are diverse across all levels are more cohesive, collaborative, and effective," the brief continued.
"Prohibiting educational institutions from using modest, race-conscious admissions policies would impair the military's ability to maintain diverse leadership, and thereby seriously undermine its institutional legitimacy and operational effectiveness," the brief said.
In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor questioned the majority's narrow exemption, and questioned why religious institutions of higher learning, which also weren't a party to the case, weren't granted a similar exemption.
"To the extent the Court suggests national security interests are 'distinct,' those interests cannot explain the Court's narrow exemption, as national security interests are also implicated at civilian universities," Sotomayor wrote.
Some legal experts appeared to agree with Sotomayor's assessment that Roberts' justification for the carveout —while he doesn't elaborate on it — appears flawed. Jessica Levinson, a CBS News contributor and Loyola Law School professor who teaches constitutional law, said it's "absolutely true" that many students who attend public colleges and private universities end up working in national security fields.
"If we're concerned that diversity promotes national security, then this carveout is such an incredibly narrow way to try and achieve that goal," she said.
The academies differ from public and private colleges and universities in that all graduating students work in national security — their tuition, room and board are free, in return for a minimum of five years of service as commissioned officers in the military.
Still, F. Michael Higginbotham, a law professor at the University of Baltimore who focuses on constitutional law and race relations, thinks that the majority's exemption for military academies appears to undermine its own argument. Certainly, the federal government has some unique responsibilities, he said, but "the concerns of universities, especially in creating diversity, are the same."
"I think that Justice Sotomayor had it right," Higginbotham said. "It kind of highlights the inconsistencies of the decision of the majority's position. And I don't really understand the exemption for the military academies. They are colleges and universities just like many many other institutions in the country."
Levinson suggested the arguments for preserving race-conscious admissions in military academies are inconsistent with the decision to end them for other colleges and universities.
"It definitely undercuts the argument that the way to end racial discrimination is to end race-conscious decisions, because the court is allowing military academies to make race-conscious decisions and they're saying and there's a really good reason for that…" Levinson said. "They're seemingly acknowledging that you don't want people in leadership positions to be wholly unrepresentative of those whom they're leading."
But the Supreme Court's landmark decision is not likely to be the end of affirmative action cases, and it's possible that the military academies could be a party in a future case.
"It is entirely possible that the court is going to have to address this again," Levinson said. "At a certain point, they're going to have to answer the question of how broadly this ruling applies."
Caitlin Yilek is a politics reporter for CBS News Digital. Reach her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/hausofcait