Supreme Court Declines Challenge of Virginia School’s Allegedly Discriminatory Admissions Policy

‘We should wipe the decision off the books,’ Supreme Court Justice Alito wrote in a stinging dissent.
Supreme Court Declines Challenge of Virginia School’s Allegedly Discriminatory Admissions Policy
Associate Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito poses for the official photo at the Supreme Court in Washington on Oct. 7, 2022. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)
Matthew Vadum

Over the objections of two conservative justices, the Supreme Court refused on Feb. 20 to hear a challenge to the admissions policy of a top-rated high school in Virginia that critics say engages in illegal racial discrimination against Asian American students.

The decision not to hear the petition in Coalition for TJ v. Fairfax County School Board came after the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional the use of racially discriminatory admissions policies at U.S. colleges in June 2023. That ruling in Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. Harvard College ended the use of so-called affirmative action in higher education, a longtime goal of conservatives.

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) is rated the fifth-best public high school in the United States by U.S. News and World Report. The school, which ranked best in the nation last year, offers 9th through 12th grades. Its total enrollment is 1,902, and it has a student-to-teacher ratio of 18–1.

The petitioning group, Coalition for TJ, with more than 200 members, was founded in August 2020 to oppose changes in the admissions policy, which its members say discriminates against Asian American students.

The group claimed in its petition that the board “overhauled its admissions” to TJ in 2020 “to racially balance the freshman class by excluding Asian Americans.” The new policy came around the time that George Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody, an event that sparked widespread, sometimes violent protests in the United States and abroad, along with race-conscious policy changes at various institutions, the renaming of professional sports teams, and the pulling down of public statues.

A federal district court agreed with the Coalition for TJ and granted summary judgment to the group. But later, a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit reversed the decision.

“Despite evidence that the Board chose the new criteria to further its racial balancing goal—and evidence that the policy substantially reduced both the raw number and the proportion of Asian Americans admitted—the Fourth Circuit held that the admissions changes did not violate the Equal Protection Clause,” the petition stated.

The coalition sought emergency relief last year from the Supreme Court, arguing at that time that the school’s removal of standardized tests from its admissions analysis, coupled with adding experience factors, led to a reduced percentage of Asian American students being accepted.

In April 2022, the Supreme Court denied the Coalition for TJ’s request to vacate a stay issued by the 4th Circuit. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch dissented from the decision, saying they would have granted the application to vacate the stay.

On Feb. 20, the Supreme Court threw out the Coalition for TJ’s latest petition in an unsigned order. At least four of the nine justices must vote to grant a petition for it to move forward to the oral argument stages.

Justice Alito dissented (pdf) from the new ruling, saying he would have granted the petition. Justice Thomas joined the dissent.

“The Court’s willingness to swallow the aberrant decision below is hard to understand,” Justice Alito said of the 4th Circuit ruling the Supreme Court had been asked to review. The circuit court decision allowed the admissions process to remain in place.

“We should wipe the decision off the books, and because the Court refuses to do so, I must respectfully dissent.”

The 4th Circuit’s decision “is based on a patently incorrect and dangerous understanding of what a plaintiff must show to prove intentional race discrimination.”

“The District Court found that direct and circumstantial evidence supported” the claim that changes were made to the admissions policy for discriminating on the basis of race, to the detriment of Asian American applicants. That court “issued an injunction against implementation of the changes.”

But a divided 4th Circuit panel reversed, finding that the claim “failed simply because the challenged changes did not reduce the percentage of Asian-American admittees below the percentage of Asian-American students in the schools in the jurisdictions served by the magnet school,” Justice Alito wrote.

“What the Fourth Circuit majority held, in essence, is that intentional racial discrimination is constitutional so long as it is not too severe. This reasoning is indefensible, and it cries out for correction.”

The Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), a national public interest law firm that fights government abuses, and which represents the Coalition for TJ, weighed in.

“The Supreme Court missed an important opportunity to end race-based discrimination in K–12 admissions,” PLF senior attorney Joshua Thompson said in a statement.

“Discrimination against students based on their race is not only ethically wrong but also a clear violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection. Schools should evaluate students as individuals, not as groups based on racial identity. That kind of group stereotyping is morally wrong and undermines the American promise of opportunity for all.”

Coalition for TJ co-founder Asra Nomani also commented.

“Today, the American Dream was dealt a blow, but we remain committed to protecting the values of merit, equality, and justice—and we will prevail for the future of our children and for the nation we love and embrace,” Ms. Nomani said.

“For the courageous families who have tirelessly fought for the principles that our nation holds dear, this decision is a setback but not a death blow to our commitment to the American Dream, which promises equal opportunity and justice for all.”

The Epoch Times has reached out to the Fairfax County School Board’s attorney, Donald Verrilli of Munger, Tolles, and Olson in Washington for comment.