Domestic Policy, Jon Reid, Supreme Court

Affirmative Action, the Debate Continues, Part I

This post is Part I in a two part series about the Supreme Court and Affirmative Action. Part two will run on 1/31/13.



By Jonathon Reid ’13

In 1988, the acceptance rate at Princeton University was 8.4%, making it one of the most selective schools in the nation. Of the few accepted students, only a small fraction declined – Cheryl Hopwood was one those.  However, unlike most of the other applicants who declined, Cheryl did not end up attending Columbia, Harvard, or Amherst.  In the late summer of 1988, Cheryl Hopwood packed up her belongings and headed west, where she attended University of Sacramento on scholarship.  Raised by a single-mother with her father dying when she was very young, Cheryl had made it into the school of her dreams and yet opted for the sense of financial security she had so long lived without.  At the University of Sacramento, Hopwood would fall in love with an Air Force officer and have a child who was later diagnosed with cerebral palsy.  Cheryl worked 30 hours a week and with her husband frequently away, had very little time to do anything else but care for her child.  Despite these hardships and time constraints, Cheryl maintained a 3.8 GPA and scored a 161 on her LSAT.  These two raw scores gave her an ‘Index Score’ of 199 ((GPA x 10) + LSAT) when she applied to the University of Texas Law School in 1992, and despite the fact that 90 other applicants were accepted with a lower Index Score, Cheryl Hopwood was rejected.  Cheryl Hopwood would file a lawsuit against the State of Texas in response to her rejection from the University of Texas Law School in June of 1992 (The Atlantic, 1994).

The landmark case of Hopwood v. Texas came before the US Supreme Court in 1996, more than 30 years after the man whose birthday we celebrated this past Monday gave his famous speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and JFK delivered his 1963 Civil Rights Address.  During those 30 years the idea of affirmative action became arguably one of the most difficult concepts to define, politically, socially, and even legally.  Originally coined in Executive Order 10925 by President Kennedy, it was intended to ‘ensure equal opportunity for all qualified persons without regard to race, color, or national origin.’ Later, it was legally articulated in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Right Act under the disparate impact legal theory of liability.  However, just years later, with two Executive Orders, President Lyndon B. Johnson broadened affirmative action to include gender and change it from the defense of pure equality to a defense of temporary inequality, arguing:
You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please. You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair…This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights.

The years following this historic declaration, however, were plagued by lawsuits, legal and political redactions, and judicial inconsistency – a trend that would continue well past the lawsuit of Cheryl Hopwood.  Today, affirmative action finds itself being heard and argued once more on the floor of the Supreme Court in what could be yet another landmark case, Fisher v. University of Texas.  However, the length and intensity of this debate should come as little surprise.

Part II of this post will run tomorrow morning.


Jonathan Reid, ’13, is a PAC Special Events Co-Coordinator and would have used a quote from Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had he not worn that puffy black chapeau at the inauguration. Reach him at


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