Lost: The Supreme Court declined to take the case, leaving the school board’s discriminatory admissions policy in place.



Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology—commonly referred to as TJ—is one of the best public high schools in the United States. For decades, hardworking students in Northern Virginia went through TJ’s competitive admissions process to earn a seat at the Fairfax County school, which has a rigorous STEM curriculum. TJ applicants would qualify as semifinalists only by scoring high enough on three standardized tests. Each year, the final freshmen class—typically made up of just under 500 students—was selected from these semifinalists based on GPA, test scores, teacher recommendations, responses to writing prompts, and a problem-solving essay.

In June 2020, amid nationwide protests after the murder of George Floyd, Fairfax County School Board members and other officials began voicing their displeasure about the racial composition of TJ’s student body. The entering class that year was 73% Asian American, a composition similar to the previous four years. One school board member promised “intentful action” and urged the board to “address the under-representation of black and Hispanic students.” Another suggested the board needed to change the admissions process “towards greater equity, to be clearly distinguished from equality.”

The rest of the school board agreed: It voted unanimously to eliminate standardized testing from the TJ admissions process and implement a new “holistic” admissions system that would award applicants points for “Experience Factors” like attending an underrepresented middle school and being eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch. The board also decided to guarantee admission for the top 1.5% of each Fairfax County middle school—meaning students at less-competitive middle schools would have an easier time getting in than those at top middle schools.

The year after the school board’s plan went into effect, the share of Asian American students dropped from 73% to 54%.

Fairfax County parents—many of them Asian American immigrants—were upset. They believed their kids should be evaluated on merit, not racial identity. That’s part of the American Dream.

These parents joined TJ alumni, staff, students, and community members to form the Coalition for TJ and filed a lawsuit against the Fairfax County School Board.

The Coalition’s members include:

  • Julia McCaskill has two daughters at TJ and a third who is a TJ graduate. Julia was born in China; her parents taught her to prioritize education. She believes the Fairfax County School Board’s focus on students’ race destroyed meritocracy at her daughters’ school and cheated some deserving applicants out of a seat.
  • Suparna Dutta is an engineer, mom, and activist for STEM education. Suparna was born in India. She came to the United States, she says, “because it was a beacon of hope and a land of opportunity for those willing to work hard and prove their worth.” Suparna believes the admissions changes at TJ harm Asian students and undermine “the very reasons immigrants like me come to this country.”
  • Asra Nomani is a mom of a TJ graduate. Asra’s family immigrated to America from India when she was ten. Asra, a former Wall Street Journalreporter, has been devastated by the changes to TJ and is committed to fighting so that “equal opportunities will be secured for all students everywhere.”
  • Vern Williams is a well-respected math teacher in Northern Virginia. Vern grew up in segregated Washington, DC, and prepares middle school students for mathematics at TJ. Writing in support of merit at TJ, he says, “I am part of the old school crowd who still believes, as did Martin Luther King, that one should be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

The Coalition’s lawsuit argued that the Fairfax County School Board’s race-based admissions scheme violates the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

On February 25, 2022, federal judge Claude Hilton ruled that Fairfax County school officials violated the law by changing admissions requirements to deliberately reduce the number of Asian American students enrolled.

Although the School Board claimed the admissions policy changes were race-neutral and intended only to increase diversity at TJ, Judge Hilton was skeptical: “Everybody knows the policy is not race-neutral, and that it’s designed to affect the racial composition of the school,” he said.

However, on May 23, 2023, the Fourth Circuit rejected the lower court’s ruling, holding that as long as the percentage of Asian American students admitted to TJ is higher than the local population, no discrimination has occurred. This ruling fundamentally misunderstands the Constitution, which protects individuals from discrimination based on race. It’s wrong to treat racial groups, rather than individuals, as the ones being hurt.

PLF petitioned the Supreme Court to reverse this ruling and clearly say that proxy discrimination like TJ’s is unconstitutional, but on February 20, 2024, the Supreme Court denied PLF’s petition.

Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas disagreed with the decision not to take the Coalition’s case. In a strong dissent, Justice Alito wrote: “What the Fourth Circuit majority held, in essence, is that intentional racial discrimination is constitutional so long as it is not too severe. This reasoning is indefensible, and it cries out for correction.”

Pacific Legal Foundation continues the fight to end race-based discrimination, with active cases in BostonNew York City, and Montgomery County, MD.

“While this may mark the end of our case, our battle continues against discrimination,” said Asra Nomani, co-founder of Coalition for TJ. “We remain steadfast in our resolve. And hope that all Americans will also fight with equality as their North Star.”

The Coalition was represented by Pacific Legal Foundation free of charge.

What’s At Stake?

  • The government should not choose who gets the opportunity to attend public schools based on students’ race or ethnicity. Discriminating by race violates the Constitution’s guarantee of equality before the law.
  • Schools should evaluate students as individuals, not as members of groups based on racial identity. That kind of group-stereotyping is morally wrong and undermines the American promise of opportunity for all.

Case Timeline