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Hopwood v. Texas, 78 F.3d 932 (5th Cir. 1996), was the first successful legal challenge to a university's affirmative action policy in student admissions since Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978). In Hopwood, four white plaintiffs who had been rejected from The University of Texas School of Law challenged the institution's admissions policy on equal protection grounds and prevailed. After seven years as a precedent in the Fifth Circuit, the Hopwood decision was abrogated by the U.S.marker Supreme Courtmarker in 2003.

The case

After being rejected by the University of Texas School of Law in 1992, Cheryl J. Hopwood filed a federal lawsuit against the University on September 29, 1992 in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas. Hopwood, a white female, alleged that she was denied admission to the law school despite being better qualified than many admitted minority candidates. Originally, Hopwood's co-plaintiff was Stephanie C. Haynes, but Haynes was dismissed from the suit on February 11, 1993. Ultimately, three white males, Douglas Carvell, Kenneth Elliott, and David Rogers, joined the existing lawsuit as plaintiffs alleging claims similar to Hopwood's. The case was presided over by United States District Judge Sam Sparks (who had graduated from the University of Texas School of Law in 1963.)

The plaintiffs were represented by a number of attorneys, including Steven Wayne Smith, a conservative Austin lawyer. (He later used his recognition from the case to be elected to the Texas Supreme Courtmarker). The University was represented pro bono by the well-respected law firm, Vinson and Elkins.

Texas Monthly editor Paul Burka later described Cheryl Hopwood as "the perfect plaintiff to question the fairness of reverse discrimination" because of her academic credentials and the personal hardships she had endured (including a young daughter suffering from a muscular disease).

After an eight-day bench trial in May of 1994, Judge Sparks issued his ruling on August 19, 1994. He determined that the University could continue to use the racial preferences which had been at issue in the litigation.. In his ruling, he noted that while it was "regrettable that affirmative action programs are still needed in our society," they were still "a necessity" until society could overcome its legacy of institutional racism. Thereupon, the four plaintiffs appealed the case to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. It heard appellate oral arguments in the case on August 8, 1995.

Nearly two years after the original trial, on March 18, 1996, the Fifth Circuit issued its opinion, which was written by Circuit Judge Jerry E. Smith. The court held that "the University of Texas School of Law may not use race as a factor in deciding which applicants to admit in order to achieve a diverse student body, to combat the perceived effects of a hostile environment at the law school, to alleviate the law school's poor reputation in the minority community, or to eliminate any present effects of past discrimination by actors other than the law school." Judge Jacques Weiner concurred in the judgment. Rehearing was denied on April 4, 1996.

Represented pro bono by noted constitutional law scholar and Harvard University professor Laurence Tribe, the University appealed the decision to the U.S.marker Supreme Courtmarker, which declined to review the case on July 1, 1996. In an opinion on the denial of certiorari, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justice David Souter, noted that the issue of the constitutionality of race in admission was "an issue of great national importance.". However, Justice Ginsburg explained that the University was no longer defending the specific admissions policy that had been at issue in the lawsuit and was rather attempting to justify only the rationale for maintaining a race-based admissions policy. Accordingly, because the Supreme Court reviews judgments and not opinions, Justice Ginsburg stated that it "must await a final judgment on a program genuinely in controversy before addressing the important question raised in this petition." Thus, the Hopwood decision became the final law of the land with respect to the use of race in admissions in Louisianamarker, Mississippimarker, and Texasmarker (the three states over which the Fifth Circuit maintained jurisdiction).

The reaction

University officials were not pleased with the opinion. Shortly after the opinion's release, UT President Robert Berdahl predicted "the virtual resegregation of higher education," while UT System Chancellor William Cunningham noted that administrators were "saddened by the 5th Circuit's sweeping determination that Bakke is no longer the law of the land and that past discrimination and diversity no longer justify affirmative action in admissions."

The Fifth Circuit's opinion catalyzed a discussion of race in admissions on campus. Faculty and students protested. For the next several years, the case was a popular topic of discussion and debate in The Daily Texan, the University's student newspaper.

Later developments

On January 15, 1997, William P. Hobby, Jr., former Lieutenant Governor of Texas and then Chancellor of the University of Houston Systemmarker, sought a clarification of the application of Hopwood from Texas Attorney General Dan Morales. Specifically, Hobby questioned how the new federal jurisprudence would affect financial aid at institutions of higher education in Texas (and in particular, its effect on specific programs of the University of Houstonmarker—mainly admissions to the University of Houston Law Center). On February 5, 1997, Morales issued his formal opinion in response to Hobby's request. Morales found that ". . . Hopwood's restrictions would generally apply to all internal institutional policies, including admissions, financial aid, scholarships, fellowships, recruitment and retention, among others." Thus, under the Morales interpretation, Hopwood was extended to prevent the consideration of race in areas beyond admissions.

On June 23, 2003, the Supreme Court abrogated Hopwood in Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003) in which the high court found that the United States Constitution "does not prohibit the law school's narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body." The ruling means that universities in the Fifth Circuit's jurisdiction can again use race as a factor in admissions (as long as quotas are not used, per Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244 (2003)).


  1. Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003) (altering jurisprudential landscape on affirmative action so that Hopwood is no longer valid precedent)
  2. Burka, Paul. "Law - Cheryl Hopwood." Texas Monthly (Sept. 1996).
  3. Hopwood v. State of Tex., 861 F.Supp. 551 (W.D. Tex. 1994)
  4. Texas v. Hopwood, 518 U.S. 1033 (1996)
  5. Merle, Renae. "Court rules against affirmative action at UT law school." Daily Texan. March 19, 1996.
  6. Tex. Atty. Gen. Op. LO-97-001, Mr. William P. Hobby (1997)
Good. Michael. 2007. "An Evaluation of the Impact of Hopewood on Minority Enrollment at the University of Texas at Austin." Applied Research Project. Texas State University.

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