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Anti-affirmative action group sues West Point over admissions policy

The group that won a major Supreme Court victory against affirmative action in June sued the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on Tuesday, arguing that the court’s ruling banning race-conscious college admissions should also extend to military academies across the country.

The group, Students for Fair Admissions, was the driving force behind the lawsuit that led the Supreme Court to overturn race-conscious admissions at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, a decision that disrupted admissions programs at colleges and universities around the world. country.

But the court specifically excluded military academies, including West Point, the Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy, from its ruling that affirmative action in college admissions could not be reconciled with the Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection. In a footnote to the majority opinion, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that the court was not ruling one way or the other on the academies, because of “potentially distinct features that military academies can present.”

This footnote paved the way for a new round of litigation, and Students for Fair Admissions seized upon it.

“For most of its history, West Point has evaluated cadets based on merit and achievement,” the group said in its complaint filed Tuesday in the Southern District of New York. But that has changed, the group says, in recent decades.

“Instead of admitting prospective cadets based on objective measures and their leadership potential, West Point focuses on race,” the complaint states, accusing the academy of practices that violate the Fifth Amendment, which, according to it, “contains a principle of equal protection which binds the federal government and is no less strict than the equal protection clause which binds the States.

Any ruling in this case would likely apply to other military academies as well.

The complaint reignites a long-running debate over whether national security depends on whether military academies can use racial preferences to develop a pipeline of officers who reflect the demographic makeup of enlisted troops and the population. in its entirety.

This argument has been a feature of previous Supreme Court cases, dating back at least to Grutter v. Bollinger, a 2003 decision upholding race-conscious admissions to the University of Michigan Law School, which was the main precedent in terms of affirmative action until this year.

An amicus brief filed in the case by former high-ranking officers and civilian military leaders claimed that the percentage of officers serving in the Vietnam War who were African American was so low – only 3 percent in the end of the war – that it led to a decline in morale. and increased racial tension in the ranks.

“For the U.S. military, as I have explained, having a diverse officer corps is a critical national security imperative,” U.S. Attorney General Elizabeth Prelogar said in oral arguments before the Supreme Court in the Harvard and North Carolina cases.

Students for Fair Admissions said in its complaint that this view is rooted in the particular circumstances of the Vietnam War — an unpopular war for which soldiers were drafted — which no longer apply.

An amicus brief filed in favor of the plaintiffs in the Harvard case by a group of veterans notes that the makeup of the military has changed significantly since the Vietnam War. In 2020, 27% of Army officers were members of a racial minority and 12.3% were Black, only about 1 percentage point less than the Black share of the national population. And the army is now made up entirely of volunteers, with no conscription in effect.

The complaint uses the recent Supreme Court decision as a road map. For example, the court faulted Harvard and North Carolina for racial stereotyping and not having a meaningful end point for their affirmative action programs, and the complaint accuses West Point of doing the same.

About 19% of officers in all branches of the U.S. military come from the military academies, according to an amicus brief filed by the Biden administration in support of Harvard and North Carolina. But there is an imbalance. In today’s military, according to the administration’s brief, white service members make up 53 percent of the active force but 73 percent of officers, while black service members make up 18 percent of the active force but 8 percent of officers.

In an all-volunteer military, striving for parity between the officer and enlisted corps is an ever-evolving goal, “amounting to a declaration that West Point will never stop using race in admissions “, the complaint states, adding that the assertion that parity is necessary to foster trust between officers and troops “is based on crude and infantilizing stereotypes.”

Others said it was too easy to view racial conflict within the military as a solved problem.

“The U.S. military was relatively ahead of the rest of society in implementing what we today call diversity, equity and inclusion programs,” laments John W. Hall, a graduate of West Point in 1994 and professor of American military history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. . “There is considerable risk associated with revoking these policies.”