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Supreme Court ruling encourages supporters — and opponents — of affirmative action

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday schools must pass a stricter legal test when using affirmative action in school admissions. NBC's Pete Williams reports.

The Supreme Court's decision to apply a tough legal standard on college affirmative action policies on Monday was hailed as a win by opposing sides, though supporters acknowledged it meant they'd have to go farther to keep such guidelines in place.

By a 7-1 vote, the court sent a case about the University of Texas admissions policy back to a federal appeals court for review, and directed the appeals court to apply an exacting legal standard known as strict scrutiny rather than accept a university's assurances of acting in good faith. (There were only eight votes because Justice Elena Kagan recused herself since she worked on the issue while she was solicitor general under President Barack Obama).

The case was brought by Abigail Fisher, a white woman who applied to the university in 2008 and was denied. She claimed that her constitutional rights and federal civil rights laws were violated.

Supporters of affirmative action said they were encouraged that the justices at least didn't yet accept the argument that race-based admissions should be completely done away with.

“This is basically where a check engine light has come on,” David Hinojosa, a regional counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said of the case.

“Without looking under the hood, Fisher said 'throw away the car, don't even salvage it.' And now what the court has said is, 'let’s look under the hood. Now it still might be a faulty light or it might be potentially a tune-up, but we definitely don’t need to discard the car altogether,'” said Hinojosa.

Sherrilynn Ifill of the NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund said the ruling — long-awaited since arguments were first made before the high court last October in the case — upheld the standard handed down by the justices in 2003, when they allowed public universities to consider race to get a critical mass of minority students.

Though supporters were thrilled by that, Ifill noted: “We also recognize that the court has put a wrinkle into the analysis that courts will have to use when they assess whether a university's plan meets constitutional muster.”

That wrinkle means courts must engage “in a rigorous review” of a university's affirmative action polices. They have to determine that the university couldn't find another race-neutral alternative to achieve the educational benefits of diversity, said Ifill president and director-counsel of the fund.

“That standard is certainly a sharper and a tighter standard,” said Ifill. “We believe the University of Texas can meet it and we believe that many other universities ... will be able to do so as well.”

But opposing counsel, Edward Blum of the Project on Fair Representation, said he thought the university wouldn't be able to meet that standard and that the justices' ruling would compel the lower court to strike down the UT's use of affirmative action in admissions.

“The Supreme Court has established exceptionally high hurdles for the Univ. of Texas and other universities and colleges to overcome if they intend to continue using race preferences in their admissions policies,” Blum said in a statement. “It is unlikely that most institutions will be able to overcome these hurdles.”

It may be up to two years before the case is ultimately resolved, said Hinojosa, adding that he believes the Fifth Circuit would in turn have to send the case back down to the lower court.

Supporters of affirmative action said they would also be reaching out to university officials to give them their take on what the decision means in a bid to preserve their policies.

“We intend to be there as other colleges and universities attempt to comply with the court's decision to ensure that the plans that they use for creating their student body will be in accordance with the court's articulation today,” Ifill said, later adding: “We ... want to make sure that universities don’t turn their back, in an abundance of caution, on the commitment to diversity and opportunity for minority students.”

Related: Supreme Court raises bar for affirmative action in college admissions