The Supreme Court made some key decisions at the end of June. How might this affect you?

Why Asian Americans Should Care About 4 Supreme Court Rulings Made Last Week

During the last week of June 2013, the Supreme Court of the United States made key decisions in several cases that will affect many of the country’s citizens, including Asian Americans. Here are four court rulings from the week and why they should matter to you:


1. Fisher v. University of Texas

What Happened: 
In 2008, Abigail Fisher applied to the University of Texas but was denied admission. Because race is one of many factors, including extracurricular activities and family circumstances, that the university evaluates when scoring potential students, Fisher, a white female, filed suit claiming that she had been discriminated against due to the university’s admissions policy.

What It Did: 
The court left the University of Texas admissions policy in place but sent the case back to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for reconsideration after finding that the Fifth Circuit did not apply strict scrutiny. 

Why It Matters: 
While some feared that the Supreme Court would overrule the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case that upheld affirmative action, the justices did not do so. Because the Supreme Court remanded the case to the Fifth Circuit, no actual decision was made in favor of the defendant or the plaintiff.  The Fifth Circuit will have to reconsider whether the use of race in the university’s admission policy was unconstitutional. 

The Asian Pacific American Legal Center, Asian American Justice Center, Asian Law Caucus, and Asian American Institute filed a joint amicus brief for the case acknowledging that “the University’s individualized, holistic admissions procedures benefit all students, including Asian Americans, by allowing the University to admit and enroll a diverse student body.” The brief also acknowledged and rebutted a separate brief filed by the Asian Pacific American Legal Foundation in which the latter claimed that the university’s policies discriminated against Asian American applicants and will cause their admission rates to decrease. 

Many Asian American groups and organizations remain divided on whether they support affirmative action policies and how much these policies actually help or hurt Asian American students. 


2. Shelby County v. Holder 

What Happened:
Shelby County, Alabama sought to invalidate Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which required places with a history of racial voter discrimination to get pre-clearance from the federal government before enacting new voting laws. In 2012, a federal court upheld Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which led to Shelby County's appeal of the decision and moved the case to the Supreme Court.

What It Did: 
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was left intact, but Section 4b, determining which locations were required by the act to seek pre-clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice before changing any voting laws, was deemed unconstitutional. With the removal of Section 4b, there is no determining factor as to which locations must obey Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Why It Matters: 
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted to prevent discriminatory voting practices used to disenfranchise African Americans. Some states and counties used to impose various literacy tests and poll taxes which had prevented many minority groups from   easily casting their votes. Section 4b of the act made it necessary for locations that had imposed those laws in the past to get clearance from the Justice Department before making any new changes to existing voting laws. With Section 4b found unconstitutional, it is now possible for those states to develop new voting laws to work in the dominant political party’s favor and at the expense of several communities. 

A Forbes article from 2012 noted that “Asians are increasingly settling not in the established hubs, but in younger, more vibrant and growing cities that are mostly in the middle or southern half of the country,” including some of the areas that was covered by the Voting Rights Act. The Asian population in Dallas and Houston alone grew more than 70%. As more Asian-Americans and Asian immigrants choose to settle in the South, it will be even more important for them to be aware of how certain voting laws may disenfranchise them if they are not paying attention. Though the Supreme Court believes that Section 4b does not apply anymore due to it being penned over 50 years ago, there is still potential for abuse. A 2006 redistricting plan in Shelby County led to the loss of an African-American councilman, who only regained his seat after another election with a nondiscriminatory redistricting plan was held.


3. United States v. Windsor:   

What Happened:
The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) allows states to determine whether or not to recognize marriages performed in other states. Section 3 of DOMA, in particular, defined “marriage” as a union between one man and one woman and “spouse” as a husband or wife in an opposite-sex marriage. This text restricted same-sex married couples from the receiving federal marriage benefits available to opposite-sex married couples.

In 2007, New York residents Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer were married in Canada. In 2009, Spyer died, leaving her estate to Windsor, who subsequently tried to claim a federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses. Because spouses only referred to opposite-sex married couples under DOMA, Windsor was denied her claim and forced to pay $363,053 in estate taxes. Windsor sued the federal government, moving through the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and the Department of Justice’s Second Circuit, before reaching the Supreme Court.

What It Did: 
Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act was deemed unconstitutional as a deprivation of equal protection under the Fifth Amendment.

Why It Matters
Because Section 3 of DOMA was deemed unconstitutional, same-sex married couples will be able to have access to a variety of federal benefits denied to them before, including next-of-kin status for emergency medical decisions, joint parenting rights, filing income taxes jointly, and applying for housing assistance if in a low-income family. Same-sex married couples will also be able to sponsor their husband or wife for immigration benefits.

The effects of the end of DOMA have already began as an immigration judge in New York City stopped the deportation of a Columbian man soon after the Supreme Court released its decision. The Columbian man was legally married to an American citizen, though the relationship was not recognized federally by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services under DOMA’s Section 3. This verdict makes it possible for even more undocumented immigrants in same-sex marriages to successfully keep their family intact as they seek pathways to citizenship. 

According to the Center for American Progress, “there are at least 267,000 LGBT-identified individuals among the adult population of undocumented immigrants” with undocumented and LGBT individuals “more likely to be Asian than the overall undocumented population”. Prominent journalist and immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas is one of the many LGBT undocumented Filipinos who would be able to benefit from this verdict in the future.


4. Hollingsworth v. Perry 

What Happened:
In November 2008, voters passed Proposition 8, amending the California Constitution to restrict the recognition of marriage to opposite-sex couples. After being denied their respective marriage licenses in 2009, Kristin Perry, Sandra Stier, Paul Katami, and Jeffrey Zarillo sued state officials, including Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Jerry Brown.  When the defendants chose not to defend the lawsuit, Proposition 8 supporters intervened in their place. U.S. District Court Chief Judge Vaughn Walker and later the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals both upheld that Proposition 8 violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process and equal protection clause, causing the proponents of Propostion 8 to further appeal to the Supreme Court.

What It Did: 
The Court held that the proponents of California’s Proposition 8 did not have the proper standing to appeal the previous ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Why It Matters: 
Though Prop 8 was passed in 2008, public opinion about same-sex marriage has changed greatly since then. When the initiative passed, only 48% of registered voters in California supported same-sex marriage. A recent poll by USC Dornsife and the Los Angeles Times shows that number has grown to 58%. Of the ethnic groups surveyed in the poll, 58% of Asian Americans said that they supported same-sex marriage, second only to Whites at 61%.

A Gallup poll from 2012 reports that 4.3% of Asian Americans identify as LGBT, second only to African-Americans at 4.6%. According to API Equality-LA, “more than a third of AAPIs in a gay or lesbian relationship in the US live in California” and “more than 13,000 AAPIs in California are in gay or lesbian relationships.” These statistics are likely to be much higher when the number of closeted individuals are included.

Whether we are aware of it or not, we have friends and family members in the LGBT community and the Supreme Court’s decision will allow same-sex marriage within California to resume in the future. It’s unknown what kind of impact, if any, this will have on other states, but it is still a victory for the thousands of LGBT Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders living in the nation’s most populous state.


These four rulings alone affect many of the over 18 million Asian Americans in the United States. Share your own feelings about these Supreme Court decisions below!


Image via Mark Fischer

About the Author

UCLA Alum (Class of 2011) with a B.A. in Global Studies and a minor in Education. Loves talking about globalization and wants to travel the world! Check out his Adventures blog at