Commercial Litigation and Arbitration

Supreme Court: Associational Standing — If Traditional 3-Part Test Is Satisfied, and the Organization Has Identified Members and Represents Them In Good Faith, Associational Standing Is Satisfied

Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President, 2023 U.S. LEXIS 2791, 2023 WL 4239254 (U.S. June 29, 2023):

Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court.

In these cases we consider whether the admissions systems used by Harvard College and the University of North Carolina, two of the oldest institutions of higher learning in the United States, are lawful under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.



Founded in 1636, Harvard College has one of the most selective application processes in the country. Over 60,000 people applied to the school last year; fewer than 2,000 were admitted. Gaining admission to Harvard is thus no easy feat. It can depend on having excellent grades, glowing recommendation letters, or overcoming significant adversity. See 980 F. 3d 157, 166-169 (CA1 2020). It can also depend on your race.

The admissions process at Harvard works as follows. Every application is initially screened by a “first reader,” who assigns scores in six categories: academic, extracurricular, athletic, school support, personal, and overall. Ibid. A rating of “1” is [*18]  the best; a rating of “6” the worst. Ibid. In the academic category, for example, a “1” signifies “near-perfect standardized test scores and grades”; in the extracurricular category, it indicates “truly unusual achievement”; and in the personal category, it denotes “outstanding” attributes like maturity, integrity, leadership, kindness, and courage. Id., at 167-168. A score of “1” on the overall rating—a composite of the five other ratings—“signifies an exceptional candidate with >90% chance of admission.” Id., at 169 (internal quotation marks omitted). In assigning the overall rating, the first readers “can and do take an applicant’s race into account.” Ibid.

Once the first read process is complete, Harvard convenes admissions subcommittees. Ibid. Each subcommittee meets for three to five days and evaluates all applicants from a particular geographic area. Ibid. The subcommittees are responsible for making recommendations to the full admissions committee. Id., at 169-170. The subcommittees can and do take an applicant’s race into account when making their recommendations. Id., at 170.

The next step of the Harvard process is the full committee meeting. The committee has 40 members, and its discussion centers around the applicants who [*19]  have been recommended by the regional subcommittees. Ibid. At the beginning of the meeting, the committee discusses the relative breakdown of applicants by race. The “goal,” according to Harvard’s director of admissions, “is to make sure that [Harvard does] not hav[e] a dramatic drop-off ” in minority admissions from the prior class. 2 App. in No. 20-1199, pp. 744, 747-748. Each applicant considered by the full committee is discussed one by one, and every member of the committee must vote on admission. 980 F. 3d, at 170. Only when an applicant secures a majority of the full committee’s votes is he or she tentatively accepted for admission. Ibid. At the end of the full committee meeting, the racial composition of the pool of tentatively admitted students is disclosed to the committee. Ibid.; 2 App. in No. 20-1199, at 861.

The final stage of Harvard’s process is called the “lop,” during which the list of tentatively admitted students is winnowed further to arrive at the final class. Any applicants that Harvard considers cutting at this stage are placed on a “lop list,” which contains only four pieces of information: legacy status, recruited athlete status, financial aid eligibility, and race. 980 F. 3d, at 170. The full [*20]  committee decides as a group which students to lop. 397 F. Supp. 3d 126, 144 (Mass. 2019). In doing so, the committee can and does take race into account. Ibid. Once the lop process is complete, Harvard’s admitted class is set. Ibid. In the Harvard admissions process, “race is a determinative tip for” a significant percentage “of all admitted African American and Hispanic applicants.” Id., at 178.


Founded shortly after the Constitution was ratified, the University of North Carolina (UNC) prides itself on being the “nation’s first public university.” 567 F. Supp. 3d 580, 588 (MDNC 2021). Like Harvard, UNC’s “admissions process is highly selective”: In a typical year, the school “receives approximately 43,500 applications for its freshman class of 4,200.” Id., at 595.

Every application the University receives is initially reviewed by one of approximately 40 admissions office readers, each of whom reviews roughly five applications per hour. Id., at 596, 598. Readers are required to consider “[r]ace and ethnicity . . . as one factor” in their review. Id., at 597 (internal quotation marks omitted). Other factors include academic performance and rigor, standardized testing results, extracurricular involvement, essay quality, personal factors, and student background. Id., at 600. Readers are responsible for providing numerical [*21]  ratings for the academic, extracurricular, personal, and essay categories. Ibid. During the years at issue in this litigation, underrepresented minority students were “more likely to score [highly] on their personal ratings than their white and Asian American peers,” but were more likely to be “rated lower by UNC readers on their academic program, academic performance, . . . extracurricular activities,” and essays. Id., at 616-617.

After assessing an applicant’s materials along these lines, the reader “formulates an opinion about whether the student should be offered admission” and then “writes a comment defending his or her recommended decision.” Id., at 598 (internal quotation marks omitted). In making that decision, readers may offer students a “plus” based on their race, which “may be significant in an individual case.” Id., at 601 (internal quotation marks omitted). The admissions decisions made by the first readers are, in most cases, “provisionally final.” Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. University of N. C. at Chapel Hill, No. 1:14-cv-954 (MDNC, Nov. 9, 2020), ECF Doc. 225, p. 7, ¶52.

Following the first read process, “applications then go to a process called ‘school group review’ . . . where a committee composed of experienced staff members reviews every [initial] decision.” 567 F. Supp. 3d, at 599. The review committee receives a report [*22]  on each student which contains, among other things, their “class rank, GPA, and test scores; the ratings assigned to them by their initial readers; and their status as residents, legacies, or special recruits.” Ibid. (footnote omitted). The review committee either approves or rejects each admission recommendation made by the first reader, after which the admissions decisions are finalized. Ibid. In making those decisions, the review committee may also consider the applicant’s race. Id., at 607; 2 App. in No. 21-707, p. 407.1


Petitioner, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), is a nonprofit organization founded in 2014 whose purpose is “to defend human and civil rights secured by law, including the right of individuals to equal protection under the law.” 980 F. 3d, at 164 (internal quotation marks omitted). In November 2014, SFFA filed separate lawsuits against Harvard College and the University of North Carolina, arguing that their race-based admissions programs violated, respectively, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 Stat. 252, 42 U. S. C. §2000d et seq., and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.2 See 397 F. Supp. 3d, at 131-132; 567 F. Supp. 3d, at 585-586. The District Courts in both cases held bench trials to evaluate SFFA’s claims. See 980 F. 3d, at 179; 567 F. Supp. 3d, at 588. Trial in the Harvard case lasted 15 days and included [*23]  testimony from 30 witnesses, after which the Court concluded that Harvard’s admissions program comported with our precedents on the use of race in college admissions. See 397 F. Supp. 3d, at 132, 183. The First Circuit affirmed that determination. See 980 F. 3d, at 204. Similarly, in the UNC case, the District Court concluded after an eight-day trial that UNC’s admissions program was permissible under the Equal Protection Clause. 567 F. Supp. 3d, at 588, 666.

We granted certiorari in the Harvard case and certiorari before judgment in the UNC case. 595 U. S. ___ (2022).


Before turning to the merits, we must assure ourselves of our jurisdiction. See Summers v. Earth Island Institute, 555 U. S. 488, 499 (2009). UNC argues that SFFA lacks standing to bring its claims because it is not a “genuine” membership organization. Brief for University Respondents in No. 21-707, pp. 23-26. Every court to have considered this argument has rejected it, and so do we. See Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. University of Tex. at Austin, 37 F. 4th 1078, 1084-1086, and n. 8 (CA5 2022) (collecting cases).

Article III of the Constitution limits “[t]he judicial power of the United States” to “cases” or “controversies,” ensuring that federal courts act only “as a necessity in the determination of real, earnest and vital” disputes. Muskrat v. United States, 219 U. S. 346, 351, 359 (1911) (internal quotation marks omitted). “To state a case or controversy under Article III, a plaintiff must establish standing.” Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn, 563 U. S. 125, 133 (2011). That, in turn, requires a plaintiff to demonstrate that it has [*24]  “(1) suffered an injury in fact, (2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and (3) that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision.” Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 578 U. S. 330, 338 (2016).

In cases like these, where the plaintiff is an organization, the standing requirements of Article III can be satisfied in two ways. Either the organization can claim that it suffered an injury in its own right or, alternatively, it can assert “standing solely as the representative of its members.” Warth v. Seldin, 422 U. S. 490, 511 (1975). The latter approach is known as representational or organizational standing. Ibid.; Summers, 555 U. S., at 497-498. To invoke it, an organization must demonstrate that “(a) its members would otherwise have standing to sue in their own right; (b) the interests it seeks to protect are germane to the organization’s purpose; and (c) neither the claim asserted nor the relief requested requires the participation of individual members in the lawsuit.Hunt v. Washington State Apple Advertising Comm’n, 432 U. S. 333, 343 (1977).

Respondents do not contest that SFFA satisfies the three-part test for organizational standing articulated in Hunt, and like the courts below, we find no basis in the record to conclude otherwise. See 980 F. 3d, at 182-184; 397 F. Supp. 3d, at 183-184; No. 1:14-cv-954 (MDNC, Sept. 29, 2018), App. D to Pet. for Cert. in No. 21-707, pp. 237-245 (2018 DC Opinion). Respondents instead argue that SFFA was not a “genuine ‘membership organization’” when it filed suit, [*25]  and thus that it could not invoke the doctrine of organizational standing in the first place. Brief for University Respondents in No. 21-707, at 24. According to respondents, our decision in Hunt established that groups qualify as genuine membership organizations only if they are controlled and funded by their members. And because SFFA’s members did neither at the time this litigation commenced, respondents’ argument goes, SFFA could not represent its members for purposes of Article III standing. Brief for University Respondents in No. 21-707, at 24 (citing Hunt, 432 U. S., at 343).

Hunt involved the Washington State Apple Advertising Commission, a state agency whose purpose was to protect the local apple industry. The Commission brought suit challenging a North Carolina statute that imposed a labeling requirement on containers of apples sold in that State. The Commission argued that it had standing to challenge the requirement on behalf of Washington’s apple industry. See id., at 336-341. We recognized, however, that as a state agency, “the Commission [wa]s not a traditional voluntary membership organization . . ., for it ha[d] no members at all.” Id., at 342. As a result, we could not easily apply the three-part test for organizational [*26]  standing, which asks whether an organization’s members have standing. We nevertheless concluded that the Commission had standing because the apple growers and dealers it represented were effectively members of the Commission. Id., at 344. The growers and dealers “alone elect[ed] the members of the Commission,” “alone . . . serve[d] on the Commission,” and “alone finance[d] its activities”—they possessed, in other words, “all of the indicia of membership.” Ibid. The Commission was therefore a genuine membership organization in substance, if not in form. And it was “clearly” entitled to rely on the doctrine of organizational standing under the three-part test recounted above. Id., at 343.

The indicia of membership analysis employed in Hunt has no applicability in these cases. Here, SFFA is indisputably a voluntary membership organization with identifiable members—it is not, as in Hunt, a state agency that concededly has no members. See 2018 DC Opinion 241-242. As the First Circuit in the Harvard litigation observed, at the time SFFA filed suit, it was “a validly incorporated 501(c)(3) nonprofit with forty-seven members who joined voluntarily to support its mission.” 980 F. 3d, at 184. Meanwhile in the UNC litigation, SFFA represented [*27]  four members in particular—high school graduates who were denied admission to UNC. See 2018 DC Opinion 234. Those members filed declarations with the District Court stating “that they have voluntarily joined SFFA; they support its mission; they receive updates about the status of the case from SFFA’s President; and they have had the opportunity to have input and direction on SFFA’s case.” Id., at 234-235 (internal quotation marks omitted). Where, as here, an organization has identified members and represents them in good faith, our cases do not require further scrutiny into how the organization operates. Because SFFA complies with the standing requirements demanded of organizational plaintiffs in Hunt, its obligations under Article III are satisfied.

Justice Jackson attempts to minimize the role that race plays in UNC’s admissions process by noting that, from 2016-2021, the school accepted a lower “percentage of the most academically excellent in-state Black candidates”—that is, 65 out of 67 such applicants (97.01%)—than it did similarly situated Asian applicants—that is, 1118 out of 1139 such applicants (98.16%). Post, at 20 (dissenting opinion); see also 3 App. in No. 21-707, pp. 1078-1080. It is not clear how the rejection of just two black applicants over five years could be “indicative of a genuinely holistic [admissions] process,” as Justice Jackson contends. Post, at 20-21. And indeed it cannot be, as the overall acceptance rates of academically excellent applicants to UNC illustrates full well. According to SFFA’s expert, over 80% of all black applicants in the top academic decile were admitted to UNC, while under 70% of white and Asian applicants in that decile were admitted. 3 App. in No. 21-707, at 1078-1083. In the second highest academic decile, the disparity is even starker: 83% of black applicants were admitted, while 58% of white applicants and 47% of Asian applicants were admitted. Ibid. And in the third highest decile, 77% of black applicants were admitted, compared to 48% of white applicants and 34% of Asian applicants. Ibid. The dissent does not dispute the accuracy of these figures. See post, at 20, n. 94 (opinion of Jackson, J.). And its contention that white and Asian students “receive a diversity plus” in UNC’s race-based admissions system blinks reality. Post, at 18.

The same is true at Harvard. See Brief for Petitioner 24 (“[A]n African American [student] in [the fourth lowest academic] decile has a higher chance of admission (12.8%) than an Asian American in the top decile (12.7%).” (emphasis added)); see also 4 App. in No. 20-1199, p. 1793 (black applicants in the top four academic deciles are between four and ten times more likely to be admitted to Harvard than Asian applicants in those deciles).

Title VI provides that “[n]o person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” 42 U. S. C. §2000d. “We have explained that discrimination that violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment committed by an institution that accepts federal funds also constitutes a violation of Title VI.” Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U. S. 244, 276, n. 23 (2003). Although Justice Gorsuch questions that proposition, no party asks us to reconsider it. We accordingly evaluate Harvard’s admissions program under the standards of the Equal Protection Clause itself.


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