By Nate Raymond
(Reuters) -A federal judge on Thursday rejected a request by the group that successfully challenged race-conscious college admissions policies before the U.S. Supreme Court to bar the U.S. Naval Academy from similarly considering race when evaluating candidates to attend the elite military school.
At the end of a court hearing, U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett in Baltimore declined to issue a preliminary injunction sought by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), a group founded by affirmative action opponent Edward Blum.
Bennett said Blum’s group had failed to show it would likely succeed in proving that the Annapolis, Maryland-based Naval Academy’s consideration of race as an admissions factor was discriminatory and a violation of equal protection rights under the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment.
The judge, an appointee of Republican former President George W. Bush, said he understood why SFFA sued the Naval Academy after the Supreme Court issued its “transformational” ruling in June, even though the decision contained an exemption allowing military academies to continue to consider race.
Joshua Gardner, a U.S. Department of Justice attorney, at the hearing argued that the military had good reason to use race as an admissions factor to foster a future generation of diverse officers who can lead to an increasingly diverse fighting force.
Bennett, who served over 20 years in the U.S. Army Reserve and the Maryland National Guard, pointed to the history of racial tensions in the military before ruling.
“There have always been racial tensions in the military,” he said. “They have lessened, but they are still there.”
The judge said he would issue a written ruling within a week and would was going to set a swift schedule for the case to proceed to trial on the merits, noting the case could someday reach the Supreme Court.
A lawyer for SFFA, Cameron Norris, in court indicated the group may appeal. Blum did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a ruling powered by its conservative majority, the U.S. Supreme Court in June rejected policies long used by American colleges and universities to increase the number of Black, Hispanic and other minority students on American campuses.
The Supreme Court’s invalidation of admissions policies used by Harvard University and the University of North Carolina did not address the consideration of race in admissions at military academies, which Chief Justice John Roberts said had “potentially distinct interests.”
Blum’s group after that ruling sued to challenge that carve-out with lawsuits against the Naval Academy and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. A federal judge in New York will hear arguments in the West Point case on Dec. 21.
President Joe Biden’s administration in defending the military academies’ policies argued that senior military leaders have long recognized that a scarcity of minority officers can create distrust within the armed forces.
The Naval Academy trains officers for both the Navy and Marines. According to the Justice Department, Black people comprise 17.5% of the Navy sailors and 10.5% of Marines, but only 8.3% of Navy officers and 5.9% of Marine officers.
White people by contrast make up 62.8% of Navy sailors and 75.5% of its officers. White individuals comprise 56.5% of Marines but 81.4% of officers, the department said.
(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; editing by Jonathan Oatis, Alexia Garamfalvi, Richard Chang and David Gregorio)