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Group sues West Point, seeking to ban affirmative action in admissions

West Point graduating cadets are seen during commencement ceremonies at Plain Parade Field at the United States Military Academy on June 13, 2020, in West Point, New York.
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West Point graduating cadets are seen during commencement ceremonies at Plain Parade Field at the United States Military Academy on June 13, 2020, in West Point, New York.

Students For Fair Admissions, the conservative group that earlier this year won a U.S. Supreme Court ban on affirmative action programs in higher education, is now suing the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The suit is aimed a eliminating all racial considerations in the service academy's admission program.

Last June, in its landmark opinion banning affirmative action in colleges and universities, the Supreme Court explicitly declined to extend its ban on affirmative action to the service academies, at least for now. The court said that the "special considerations" raised by the military had never been addressed by the lower courts.

The military has long maintained that the nation's security depends on having a diverse officer corps that is ready to lead an increasingly diverse fighting force. It learned that lesson the hard way during the Vietnam war when racial tensions caused serious problems between the overwhelmingly white officer corps and the significantly minority enlisted men.

More than 300,000 Black Americans served in Vietnam. Though only about 12% of the U.S. population, Black servicemembers were 16.3% of the armed forces, and up to 25% of enlisted men in the Army, but only 2% of officers across all branches.

The Defense Department ultimately concluded that the lack of minorities in the officer corps "threatened the integrity and performance of the military." And since the Vietnam War, the service academies have aggressively addressed that problem by considering race, along with other qualities, in determining who to admit.

The admissions systems at the service academies are quite different than at civilian institutions, with members of Congress, the vice president, and the president all playing a role in recommending candidates for admission.

Now, however, students for Fair Admission, the same group that successfully sued Harvard and the University of North Carolina, has West Point and the other service academies in its sights. In its lawsuit filed Tuesday, it asserts that in recent decades West Point has abandoned its tradition of merit-based admissions in favor of a system that it claims is "focused on race." West Point has "no justification for using race-based admissions," SFAA asserts, adding that the the academy is "not exempt from the constitution."

The suit was filed in Federal District Court in New York, and likely will end up at the Supreme Court next year some time.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.