In a move that surprised even affirmative action advocates, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the University of Texas may indeed take into consideration a student's race during the admissions process, albeit in a limited manner, the Washington Post reports. The vote was 4-3, per the New York Times, as the late Antonin Scalia's seat remains empty and Justice Elena Kagan had recused herself because she'd previously been involved with the case as US solicitor general. "It remains an enduring challenge to our Nation's education system to reconcile the pursuit of diversity with the constitutional promise of equal treatment and dignity," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority. "In striking this sensitive balance, public universities … can serve as 'laboratories for experimentation,'" he added, though noting that "it is the University's ongoing obligation to engage in constant deliberation and continued reflection regarding its admissions policies."
This was the second time the case, brought by Abigail Fisher after she was denied admission in 2008 to the school's Austin campus, was seen by the high court: It made its way before the Supreme Court bench in 2013, but it was bumped back to a lower appeals court to review the lawsuit once more (that court once more backed up the university). Many experts didn't expect the case to go the way of the affirmative action camp. "The decision itself is written quite narrowly, and tailored to the UT program specifically," a law professor at the American University Washington College of Law tells CNN. "But it's safe to assume that public universities across the country will now look at this ruling as a roadmap for how to constitutionally take race into account." Chief Justice John Roberts was joined in his dissent by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, who wrote the decision seemed "strange" and that the court was acting "inexplicably" in its ruling.