On March 31, the federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals voted 2-1 to stay a February 25 district court ruling that the Fairfax County School Board violated the law in changing admissions requirements at the nation’s top public high school. The district court judge had agreed with a coalition of concerned parents and community members who brought a lawsuit arguing that the revised admissions policy for Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) violated the rights of Asian-American applicants. The judge struck down the revised policy as “racially motivated” and concluded that “Asian-American students are disproportionately harmed” by the policy, which sharply reduced the number of Asian-American students admitted to TJ last year while boosting admission of students from every other racial group.
The Fourth Circuit did not overturn the district court’s decision but put it on hold while it considers the school board’s appeal. Unfortunately, that means that the board can apply its discriminatory policy to another class of incoming TJ students, with Asian-American students sure to suffer most. One of the Fourth Circuit judges, Allison Rushing, wrote an opinion dissenting from the stay because in her view, the harm to Asian-American applicants outweighs any inconvenience to the school board from having to fix TJ’s admissions policy on a shortened timeline. That is particularly true, Judge Rushing concluded, because the district court judge told school board lawyers in September 2021 that they should be prepared with a new policy in case their revisions were found to violate the law.
Although disappointing, the Fourth Circuit stay is far from ending the case. Today, the coalition filed an emergency request with the U.S. Supreme Court to vacate the Fourth Circuit’s stay. The Supreme Court—which recently agreed to hear a similar case challenging Harvard’s racial preferences in admissions—should rule on the coalition’s emergency request in the next few weeks. And even if the Supreme Court does not vacate the stay, the Fourth Circuit or Supreme Court could ultimately agree with the district court judge that TJ’s revised admissions policy is unlawful. We expect a Fourth Circuit decision on the school board’s appeal around the end of the year.