Affirmative action, student debt rulings loom at US Supreme Court

By John Kruzel and Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide by the end of this month the fate of race-conscious collegiate admission policies, one of the major disputes – also including cases involving LGBT rights and student debt forgiveness – still yet to be resolved as the justices speed toward the end of their current term.

The court’s conservative justices, who hold a 6-3 majority, signaled skepticism during oral arguments in October toward the legality of student admissions policies employed by Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. The pending rulings concerning the two elite schools could end affirmative action programs that have been used by many U.S. colleges and universities for decades to increase their numbers of Black, Hispanic and other underrepresented minority students.

The court is next expected to issue rulings on Thursday and Friday.

The conservative justices a year ago wrapped up a watershed term in which the court overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that had legalized abortion nationwide – a decision that opened the door to a series of state bans on the procedure – and expanded gun rights.

Opinion polls have revealed a sharp drop in public confidence in the top U.S. judicial body, which also has been embroiled in ethics controversies – in particular revelations about ties between conservative Justice Clarence Thomas and a Texas billionaire.

Against this backdrop, the court is again poised to decide cases with the potential to reshape key areas of law and impact life for millions of Americans. The court began its term in October and typically finishes by the end of June each year.

The Supreme Court already has ruled in two major race-related cases. In a 5-4 ruling on June 8, it found that a Republican-drawn electoral map in Alabama violated a federal law prohibiting racial discrimination in voting. In a 7-2 ruling on June 15, it threw out a challenge to decades-old federal standards that give preferences to Native Americans and tribal members in the adoption or foster care placements of Native American children.

In both cases, the challengers argued that laws designed to protect certain minorities allowed unlawful racial discrimination against other Americans.

In the student admissions cases, the challengers – a group founded by anti-affirmative action activist Edward Blum – accused the two schools of discriminating against white and Asian American applicants. Harvard and UNC have said they use race as only one factor in a host of individualized evaluations for admission without quotas as they seek campus diversity to enrich the educational experience of all students.

The justices also are due to decide the legality of President Joe Biden’s plan to cancel $430 billion in student loan debt. During oral arguments in February, the court’s conservatives indicated skepticism over the legality of Biden’s plan to eliminate debt for some 40 million student borrowers, as he promised as a candidate in 2020.

Biden’s plan, announced last year, was challenged by conservative-leaning Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and South Carolina and a pair of individual borrowers opposed to the plan’s eligibility requirements.

In another major case, the court could make it easier for businesses to refuse to provide certain services to LGBT customers in a case involving Colorado website designer Lorie Smith’s bid to refuse to design wedding websites for same-sex couples. Smith’s challenge to Colorado’s anti-discrimination law contends that she is an artist and enjoys a free speech right under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment to refuse to express messages contrary to her Christian faith.

The justices also are poised to decide a case that could undercut presidential power over immigration in a challenge by conservative-leaning Texas and Louisiana to Biden’s policy narrowing the scope of who can be targeted in immigration enforcement actions.

Other pending decisions include a former U.S. Postal Service carrier’s lawsuit that could make it easier for employees to seek religious accommodations from employers and a man’s appeal of his conviction in Colorado for stalking a woman in a First Amendment case that could clarify the line between legally protected speech and criminal threats.

The justices also could rule in a major case in which Republican officials in North Carolina are seeking to give state legislatures far more power over federal elections, though they may dismiss it because of a lower court’s reversal.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York and John Kruzel in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham)