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Hopwood v. State (1996)

A brief overview of the case: Is it unjust to consider race as a factor in college and university admissions? That is what Cheryl Hopwood argued when she was denied admission to the University of Texas Law School even though her test scores and grades were higher than some of the minority candidates who were admitted. Hopwood, together with a number of other white candidates, sued the University of Texas Law School in the case of Hopwood v. State of Texas (1996).


Cheryl J. Hopwood v. State of Texas

United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

March 18, 1996

JERRY E. SMITH, Circuit Judge:

With the best of intentions, in order to increase the enrollment of certain favored classes of minority students, the University of Texas School of Law (“the law school”) discriminates in favor of those applicants by giving substantial racial preferences in its admissions program. The beneficiaries of this system are blacks and Mexican Americans, to the detriment of whites and non-preferred minorities. The question we decide today in No. 94-50664 is whether the Fourteenth Amendment permits the school to discriminate in this way.

We hold that it does not. The law school has presented no compelling justification, under the Fourteenth Amendment or Supreme Court precedent, that allows it to continue to elevate some races over others, even for the wholesome purpose of correcting perceived racial imbalance in the student body. “Racial preferences appear to ‘even the score’ … only if one embraces the proposition that our society is appropriately viewed as divided into races, making it right that an injustice rendered in the past to a black man should be compensated for by discriminating against a white.” City of Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co., 488 U.S. 469, 528, 109 S.Ct. 706, 740, 102 L.Ed.2d 854 (1989) (Scalia, J., concurring in the judgment).

As a result of its diligent efforts in this case, the district court concluded that the law school may continue to impose racial preferences. See Hopwood v. Texas, 861 F.Supp. 551 (W.D.Tex.1994). In No. 94-50664, we reverse and remand, concluding that the law school may not use race as a factor in law school admissions.

The University of Texas School of Law is one of the nation’s leading law schools, consistently ranking in the top twenty. See, e.g., America’s Best Graduate Schools, U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT Mar. 20, 1995, at 84 (national survey ranking of seventeenth). Accordingly, admission to the law school is fiercely competitive, with over 4,000 applicants a year competing to be among the approximately 900 offered admission to achieve an entering class of about 500 students. Many of these applicants have some of the highest grades and test scores in the country.

Numbers are therefore paramount for admission. In the early 1990′s, the law school largely based its initial admissions decisions upon an applicant’s so-called Texas Index (“TI”) number, a composite of undergraduate grade point average (“GPA”) and Law School Aptitude Test (“LSAT”) score.1 The law school used this number as a matter of administrative convenience in order to rank candidates and to predict, roughly, one’s probability of success in law school. Moreover, the law school relied heavily upon such numbers to estimate the number of offers of admission it needed to make in order to fill its first-year class.

Of course, the law school did not rely upon numbers alone. The admissions office necessarily exercised judgment in interpreting the individual scores of applicants, taking into consideration factors such as the strength of a student’s undergraduate education, the difficulty of his major, and significant trends in his own grades and the undergraduate grades at his respective college (such as grade inflation). Admissions personnel also considered what qualities each applicant might bring to his law school class. Thus, the law school could consider an applicant’s background, life experiences, and outlook. Not surprisingly, these hard-to-quantify factors were especially significant for marginal candidates.2

Because of the large number of applicants and potential admissions factors, the TI’s administrative usefulness was its ability to sort candidates. For the class entering in 1992–the admissions group at issue in this case–the law school placed the typical applicant in one of three categories according to his TI scores: “presumptive admit,” “presumptive deny,” or a middle “discretionary zone.” An applicant’s TI category determined how extensive a review his application would receive.

Blacks and Mexican Americans were treated differently from other candidates, however. First, compared to whites and non-preferred minorities,4 the TI ranges that were used to place them into the three admissions categories were lowered to allow the law school to consider and admit more of them. In March 1992, for example, the presumptive TI admission score for resident whites and non-preferred minorities was 199.5 Mexican Americans and blacks needed a TI of only 189 to be presumptively admitted.6 The difference in the presumptive-deny ranges is even more striking. The presumptive denial score for “nonminorities” was 192; the same score for blacks and Mexican Americans was 179.

While these cold numbers may speak little to those unfamiliar with the pool of applicants, the results demonstrate that the difference in the two ranges was dramatic. According to the law school, 1992 resident white applicants had a mean GPA of 3.53 and an LSAT of 164. Mexican Americans scored 3.27 and 158; blacks scored 3.25 and 157. The category of “other minority” achieved a 3.56 and 160.7

These disparate standards greatly affected a candidate’s chance of admission. For example, by March 1992, because the presumptive denial score for whites was a TI of 192 or lower, and the presumptive admit TI for minorities was 189 or higher, a minority candidate with a TI of 189 or above almost certainly would be admitted, even though his score was considerably below8 the level at which a white candidate almost certainly would be rejected. Out of the pool of resident applicants who fell within this range (189-192 inclusive), 100% of blacks and 90% of Mexican Americans, but only 6% of whites, were offered admission.9

The stated purpose of this lowering of standards was to meet an “aspiration” of admitting a class consisting of 10% Mexican Americans and 5% blacks, proportions roughly comparable to the percentages of those races graduating from Texas colleges. The law school found meeting these “goals” difficult, however, because of uncertain acceptance rates and the variable quality of the applicant pool.10 In 1992, for example, the entering class contained 41 blacks and 55 Mexican Americans, respectively 8% and 10.7% of the class.

In addition to maintaining separate presumptive TI levels for minorities and whites, the law school ran a segregated application evaluation process. Upon receiving an application form, the school color-coded it according to race. If a candidate failed to designate his race, he was presumed to be in a nonpreferential category. Thus, race was always an overt part of the review of any applicant’s file.

Cheryl Hopwood, Douglas Carvell, Kenneth Elliott, and David Rogers (the “plaintiffs”) applied for admission to the 1992 entering law school class. All four were white residents of Texas and were rejected.

The plaintiffs were considered as discretionary zone candidates.12 Hopwood, with a GPA of 3.8 and an LSAT of 39 (equivalent to a three-digit LSAT of 160), had a TI of 199, a score barely within the presumptive-admit category for resident whites, which was 199 and up. She was dropped into the discretionary zone for resident whites (193 to 198), however, because Johanson decided her educational background overstated the strength of her GPA.

The plaintiffs sued primarily under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. … The central purpose of the Equal Protection Clause “is to prevent the States from purposefully discriminating between individuals on the basis of race.” … In order to preserve these principles, the Supreme Court recently has required that any governmental action that expressly distinguishes between persons on the basis of race be held to the most exacting scrutiny. See, e.g., id. at —-, 115 S.Ct. at 2113; Loving, 388 U.S. at 11, 87 S.Ct. at 1823. Furthermore, there is now absolutely no doubt that courts are to employ strict scrutiny16 when evaluating all racial classifications, including those characterized by their proponents as “benign” or “remedial.” …

Under the strict scrutiny analysis, we ask two questions: (1) Does the racial classification serve a compelling government interest, and (2) is it narrowly tailored to the achievement of that goal? …

With these general principles of equal protection in mind, we turn to the specific issue of whether the law school’s consideration of race as a factor in admissions violates the Equal Protection Clause. The district court found both a compelling remedial and a non-remedial justification for the practice.

First, the court approved of the non-remedial goal of having a diverse student body, reasoning that “obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a racially and ethnically diverse student body remains a sufficiently compelling interest to support the use of racial classifications.” 861 F.Supp. at 571. Second, the court determined that the use of racial classifications could be justified as a remedy for the “present effects at the law school of past discrimination in both the University of Texas system and the Texas educational system as a whole.”

We agree with the plaintiffs that any consideration of race or ethnicity by the law school for the purpose of achieving a diverse student body is not a compelling interest under the Fourteenth Amendment. … [T]here has been no indication from the Supreme Court, other than Justice Powell’s lonely opinion in Bakke, that the state’s interest in diversity constitutes a compelling justification for governmental race-based discrimination. Subsequent Supreme Court caselaw strongly suggests, in fact, that it is not.

Within the general principles of the Fourteenth Amendment, the use of race in admissions for diversity in higher education contradicts, rather than furthers, the aims of equal protection. Diversity fosters, rather than minimizes, the use of race. It treats minorities as a group, rather than as individuals. It may further remedial purposes but, just as likely, may promote improper racial stereotypes, thus fueling racial hostility.

The use of race, in and of itself, to choose students simply achieves a student body that looks different. Such a criterion is no more rational on its own terms than would be choices based upon the physical size or blood type of applicants. Thus, the Supreme Court has long held that governmental actors cannot justify their decisions solely because of race.

While the use of race per se is proscribed, state-supported schools may reasonably consider a host of factors–some of which may have some correlation with race–in making admissions decisions. The federal courts have no warrant to intrude on those executive and legislative judgments unless the distinctions intrude on specific provisions of federal law or the Constitution.

A university may properly favor one applicant over another because of his ability to play the cello, make a downfield tackle, or understand chaos theory. An admissions process may also consider an applicant’s home state or relationship to school alumni. Law schools specifically may look at things such as unusual or substantial extracurricular activities in college, which may be atypical factors affecting undergraduate grades. Schools may even consider factors such as whether an applicant’s parents attended college or the applicant’s economic and social background.28

For this reason, race often is said to be justified in the diversity context, not on its own terms, but as a proxy for other characteristics that institutions of higher education value but that do not raise similar constitutional concerns. Unfortunately, this approach simply replicates the very harm that the Fourteenth Amendment was designed to eliminate.

The assumption is that a certain individual possesses characteristics by virtue of being a member of a certain racial group. This assumption, however, does not withstand scrutiny. “[T]he use of a racial characteristic to establish a presumption that the individual also possesses other, and socially relevant, characteristics, exemplifies, encourages, and legitimizes the mode of thought and behavior that underlies most prejudice and bigotry in modern America.” Richard A. Posner, The DeFunis Case and the Constitutionality of Preferential Treatment of Racial Minorities, 1974 SUP.CT.REV. 12 (1974).

To believe that a person’s race controls his point of view is to stereotype him. The Supreme Court, however, “has remarked a number of times, in slightly different contexts, that it is incorrect and legally inappropriate to impute to women and minorities ‘a different attitude about such issues as the federal budget, school prayer, voting, and foreign relations.’ ”

Instead, individuals, with their own conceptions of life, further diversity of viewpoint. Plaintiff Hopwood is a fair example of an applicant with a unique background. She is the now-thirty-two-year-old wife of a member of the Armed Forces stationed in San Antonio and, more significantly, is raising a severely handicapped child. Her circumstance would bring a different perspective to the law school. The school might consider this an advantage to her in the application process, or it could decide that her family situation would be too much of a burden on her academic performance.

We do not opine on which way the law school should weigh Hopwood’s qualifications; we only observe that “diversity” can take many forms. To foster such diversity, state universities and law schools and other governmental entities must scrutinize applicants individually, rather than resorting to the dangerous proxy of race. …

In summary, we hold that the University of Texas School of Law may not use race as a factor in deciding which applicants to admit in order to achieve a diverse student body, to combat the perceived effects of a hostile environment at the law school, to alleviate the law school’s poor reputation in the minority community, or to eliminate any present effects of past discrimination by actors other than the law school. Because the law school has proffered these justifications for its use of race in admissions, the plaintiffs have satisfied their burden of showing that they were scrutinized under an unconstitutional admissions system. The plaintiffs are entitled to reapply under an admissions system that invokes none of these serious constitutional infirmities. …