Oct 31 – Affirmative Action – lines and more

One of the most anticipated arguments of the term is set for Monday, October 31, when the court will hear arguments in Students for Fair Admissions v. President & Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina. One question presented is the same in both cases: “whether the Supreme Court should overrule Grutter v. Bollinger and hold that institutions of higher education cannot use race as a factor in admissions.” The Harvard case’s second question is “whether Harvard College is violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by penalizing Asian American applicants, engaging in racial balancing, overemphasizing race and rejecting workable race-neutral alternatives.” And the UNC case instead considers “whether a university can reject a race-neutral alternative because it would change the composition of the student body, without proving that the alternative would cause a dramatic sacrifice in academic quality or the educational benefits of overall student-body diversity.”

So much has been written about these cases that I won’t pile on. To get a strong sense of the legal (as opposed to the political) issues in this case, a great starting point would be the NAACP LDEF amicus brief. There’s also an interesting perspective offered by the APA. For a shorter overview, see the Lawyers’ Committee preview.

But here’s something I can add:

When should I get in line?

This is hard to answer because we are in a new era — this will be only the fifth day in the history of the Court that people could either attend in person or listen in live. Before Covid, public access to arguments hadn’t been suspended since 1918 (for the Spanish Flu), when teleconferencing hadn’t been invented.

I had students attend arguments (via the public line) in three of the first four such days earlier this month, so from that I can offer a few observations. The lines seem to have become much more reasonable than they were pre-pandemic, when it was not uncommon in major cases that the last person to get in for arguments started waiting in line in the morning of the day before. But the lines are still forming early and they could start forming even earlier!

Arriving by 5am was okay in the first two weeks, but I would get there at least a couple hours before that for the affirmative action cases. The Voting Rights Act arguments on October 4 may be the closest comparator in terms of public interest — my student who got in line at 4:45 made it, but only about ten people behind her got in. What you really don’t want is to get there at 4am and still not make it! Much better to get there as early as you can manage, and not be worried about that.

The first fifty people can be quite assured that they’ll get in (barring something extremely unusual). After that, it can depend on that day’s special arrangements and there is the option for a walk through for a few minutes (which is really unsatisfying!).

Also, major cases always draw demonstrators to the sidewalk in front of the Court, and arguing counsel usually speaks at a press conference and/or rally after the arguments. There certainly will be events on Monday! So it’s worth going to the Court just to take in the atmosphere outside the arguments, even if you can’t make it inside.

How long will the arguments be?

This has also changed. Pre-pandemic, it was extremely unusual for arguments to go much over the scheduled time. When telephone arguments required other adjustments to form, the arguments started running long — sometimes roughly twice the scheduled time. That trend of longer arguments seems to have continued now that they’re back in-person. It wouldn’t surprise me if the two affirmative action cases on October 31 go on for three hours or more. And I don’t believe they’ve made arrangements for bathroom breaks!

What about other arguments this week?

Tuesday, November 1 has two cases that will be of some interest and reasonably accessible for the casual observer:

Cruz v. Arizona : Whether the Arizona Supreme Court’s holding that Arizona Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.1 (g) precluded post-conviction relief is an adequate and independent state-law ground for the judgment.

Jones v. Hendrix: Whether federal inmates who did not — because established circuit precedent stood firmly against them — challenge their convictions on the ground that the statute of conviction did not criminalize their activity may apply for habeas relief under 28 U.S.C § 2241 after the Supreme Court later makes clear in a retroactively applicable decision that the circuit precedent was wrong and that they are legally innocent of the crime of conviction.

I wouldn’t recommend a casual observer take in Wednesday’s arguments (a Bank Secrecy Act case).

There are some interesting cases coming up the following week, which I will address in a later post.