What Happened Today at the Supreme Court

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December 9, 2015
Susan Sommer at the Supreme Court today.

Attending the argument in the Supreme Court today in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, I was struck with a sense of deja vu.

It had been not many months before that I was in the Court for another significant civil rights case — Obergefell v. Hodges — highlighting the critical value of respect for the diverse fabric of our nation. The deja vu also arose from the fact that this was the second time in just a few years that the Fisher case was in the Supreme Court and that the importance of diversity in higher education was the subject of the Court's intense focus.

Shortly before the Justices took the bench, the widow of a former pillar of the Court took a seat in the spectator section -- the widow of Justice Thurgood Marshall, the Court's first African-American Justice, who played a critical role in breaking down the barriers to inclusion and equality for people of color that remain a dreadful part of our history-- and of our present. The symbolism was powerful. The work of prior generations to end segregation and discrimination in education and throughout society is not complete, as too many people in our nation experience all too brutally every day.

The University of Texas, recognizing this reality and the compelling need to address it, took meaningful steps in its use of race as a factor among many in college admissions decisions. In court today, the University's attorney, Gregory Garre, defended the University's narrowly tailored policy. He emphasized that the policy adheres to past Supreme Court precedent allowing consideration of race as part of a college's holistic admissions process to ensure that minority groups are woven into the student body, bringing value to the broader university community in the process.

Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, arguing in support of the University's admissions plan, likewise emphasized the importance to business, military and civic spheres of educational settings that train students of diverse backgrounds to interact and work together effectively beyond campus walls.

The importance of coming to know and empathize with people who may not be just like us is a lesson the LGBT community well understands. As the friend-of-the-court brief Lambda Legal joined in Fisher II explains, our nation's growing recognition of the shared humanity and dignity of LGBT people has evolved as others in this nation have come to know the LGBT individuals in the midst of their families and communities.

The last time I was in that august Supreme Court chamber I heard the poignant words Justice Kennedy read from the Court's opinion in Obergefell proclaiming the right of same-sex couples to full inclusion in the institution of marriage. We hope that the same ideals of inclusion and the strength that comes to us all from respecting the diversity of our nation will be heard once again in that courtroom, with a decision upholding the University of Texas's admissions program.