West Point and the Naval Academy Defend Their Consideration of Race in Student Admissions
Jan 16, 2024
On January 3, 2024, a federal district court judge denied the Students for Fair Admissions’ (“SFFA”) request to enjoin the United States Military Academy at West Point (“West Point”) from considering race when making admission decisions. The decision follows a December 15, 2023, denial of SFFA’s request for an injunction to prohibit the United States Naval Academy from considering race when admitting cadets. SFFA is the same organization that prevailed in lawsuits against Harvard and the University of North Carolina for their use of race in student admissions. At the early stages of litigation, it appears that at least two district courts are open to carving out an exception for military service academies consideration of race in student admissions.
SFFA’s recent lawsuits are a direct challenge to the Supreme Court’s statement that its ruling in Harvard was not applicable to the country’s military academies and that military academies might present distinct interests to consider race when admitting its cadets. In reviewing SFFA’s request for an injunction against West Point, the district court reviewed West Point’s admissions process. Cadets seeking entry into West Point, in addition to successfully completing a candidate questionnaire, submission of academic records, test scores, teacher evaluations, a medical and physical fitness assessment and an interview, must receive a nomination from a member of Congress, a member of the Senate or the Superintendent of West Point. Additionally, the United States President and the Secretary of the Army may make “service-connected” nominations from areas such as enlisted members, ROTC, and children of members of the armed forces killed in action. If West Point has not filled all spaces for the incoming class, it may offer appointment to other remaining qualified nominees designated as “Additional Appointees.”
West Point openly states that it is committed to affirmative action and that it “considers race and ethnicity flexibly as a plus factor in an individualized, holistic assessment of African American, Hispanic and Native American candidates at three limited stages of the admissions process.” West Point asserts that it uses race and ethnicity in limited circumstances to further the military’s distinct operational interests in developing a diverse officer corps to ultimately ensure that the military can meet its critical national security mission.
In denying SFFA’s request for preliminary injunction to stop West Point’s current admissions practices, the district court stated that SFFA did not meet its burden of proof with respect to injunctive relief which required SFFA to show a likelihood of success on the merits of its claims, irreparable harm if the plaintiffs are not admitted to West Point, and that the public interest weighs in favor of granting injunctive relief.
Additionally, the district court stated that it could not decide, this early in the lawsuit, whether West Point’s consideration of race in the admissions process is constitutionally defensible because its admissions practices support a compelling government interest and are narrowly tailored to meet that interest. According to the district court, to grant an injunction based upon written briefs, without a full understanding informed by a complete factual predicate, would be imprudent. In so stating, the Court noted that the Harvard litigation was adjudicated only after full trials.
Notably, the district court reminded SFFA that while it must analyze West Point’s admissions program under the constitutional strict scrutiny analysis, it will do so in light of the Supreme Court’s prior case instruction to give “great deference to the professional judgment of military authorities concerning the relative importance of a particular military interest.” As such, according to the court, West Point “is due more deference than were the private and public universities in Harvard…”
It is likely these military academy cases will eventually end up before the Supreme Court. Additionally, it will be interesting to see if the courts’ reasoning behind greater deference to the unique needs of the military academies, transfer to other quasi-military organizations such as police departments and other security services. We will continue to provide updates on both cases and the consideration of race in service academy admissions as they wind their way through the federal courts.