The Implications of the SCOTUS Ruling on Affirmative Action

The Implications of the SCOTUS Ruling on Affirmative Action


In a landmark decision, the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) declared the race-conscious admission policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina (UNC) as unconstitutional, challenging the Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment.


GS-02 (Indian Polity)


  • Meaning of Affirmative Action.

Mains Questions:

  • Compare the constitutional frameworks of India and the United States in relation to affirmative action and analyze the differing approaches toward addressing historical discrimination based on race and caste. (150 words)

Dimensions of the article:

  • The SCOTUS Ruling and its Underlying Reasons
  •  Implications for India’s Affirmative Action and Reservation Policies
  • Formal Equality vs. Substantive Equality
  • Different Tests for Constitutionality

The SCOTUS Ruling and its Underlying Reasons

  • The court emphasized the color-blind nature of the equal protection clause, asserting that race-based affirmative action contradicts the principle of identical treatment.
  • It stated that any such deviation can only be justified if the state has a compelling goal and affirmative action is necessary to achieve it. The court found the objectives of Harvard and the UNC to be commendable but vague.
  • The court highlighted the need for affirmative action policies to have a “sunset clause,” which both Harvard and the UNC lacked.
  • The court determined that affirmative action should not perpetuate racial stereotypes or disadvantage individuals based on race, which were identified as problematic aspects in this case.

Implications for India’s Affirmative Action and Reservation Policies

  • India and the United States have contrasting constitutional frameworks when it comes to affirmative action. While the U.S. Constitution is silent on the matter, India’s Constitution explicitly allows affirmative action in favor of backward classes in education and jobs.
  • The provision for reservations in jobs, unique to the Indian Constitution, has been in place since its inception in 1950.
  • Unlike the U.S., Indian courts do not debate the fundamental permissibility of affirmative action, as the Constitution conclusively answers that question.

Formal Equality vs. Substantive Equality

  • Another significant distinction between the two jurisdictions is the notion of equality that forms the basis for affirmative action. The U.S. aims to eliminate all race-based distinctions universally, upholding a narrow view of formal equality.
  • In contrast, India recognizes that certain historically disadvantaged groups, such as Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Backward Classes, require special consideration to achieve equal opportunities.
  • This substantive notion of equality allows Indian courts to pass pro-reservation judgments aligned with the constitutional mandate.

Different Tests for Constitutionality

  • The U.S. applies strict scrutiny to measures that create distinctions based on race. For such measures to be constitutionally permissible, they must serve a compelling state interest and be narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.
  • In contrast, Indian courts employ a different standard under Articles 15 and 16 of the Constitution. They focus on whether the class seeking reservation is socially and educationally backward, and inadequately represented.
  • If these criteria are met, even broad reservation measures are deemed constitutional, with the non-minority interests safeguarded by capping reservations at 50%.

Way Forward:

  • While Indian courts are unlikely to align with the SCOTUS ruling on affirmative action, there are lessons to be learned. The idea of implementing a sunset clause, as suggested by the Indian Supreme Court in the Economically Weaker Section (EWS) Reservations case, could be worth considering. The receptiveness of the Indian Parliament to this idea remains to be seen.


  • The SCOTUS ruling on affirmative action has significant implications for India’s reservation policies and the concept of substantive equality. The divergent constitutional frameworks and approaches of the two countries shape their respective perspectives on affirmative action. The ongoing debate surrounding affirmative action underscores the need to understand the specific contexts and constitutional mandates of each country when examining foreign judgments.