- Marlene Lacasse/Daily
By Taylor Wizner, Daily News Editor
Published October 10, 2013
Michigan residents voted to ban affirmative action in 2006 ballot initiative, but a case before the U.S. Supreme Court may reverse that decision and set a new precedent for the way Michigan’s higher-education institutions consider race in application processes.
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On Tuesday, the justices will hear oral arguments on Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, a case that will approach the question of whether or not the state of Michigan violated the U.S. Constitution and federal statutory law by changing the state’s constitution to prohibit all sex- and race-based discrimination or preferential treatment.
The case is part of a series of responses that occurred after the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision on affirmative action involving admissions to the University’s Law School in Grutter v. Bollinger, which bears the name of former University President Lee Bollinger, now president of Columbia University. In a 5-4 decision, the court held that the Law School’s more holistic admissions program, which included race as a possible factor in admissions decisions, was constitutional. However, in Gratz v. Bollinger, the court held that the University’s undergraduate admissions program’s assigning substantial points to certain students based on race was unconstitutional since the undergraduate admissions process was more formulaic.
After the ruling, the University and many other institutions adopted programs that were closer to the Law School’s holistic approach and did not assign point values based on the different qualities the applicant possessed, particularly those related to race.
However, the two Supreme Court rulings based on University admissions policies did not quell controversy surrounding affirmative action, and in 2006, 58 percent of Michigan voters approved Proposal 2. The referendum amended the Michigan constitution to prohibit racially based preferences in admissions for public universities.
University President Mary Sue Coleman has continued to be a vocal proponent of the use of affirmative action in higher-education policies, and the day after the passage of Proposal 2, she gave a dramatic speech on the Diag promising to maintain diversity at the University.
“Make no mistake: We will find the route that continues our commitment to a richly diverse student body,” Coleman said in 2006.
When commenting on Fisher v. University of Texas last year, Coleman rejected the argument that affirmative action was no longer necessary and said she couldn’t foresee a day when such programs were no longer necessary.
Immediately after the vote, a number of pro-affirmative-action groups filed suit against the state and its public higher education institutions in order to nullify the law, claiming it violated the U.S. Constitution. In addition, another suit was filed by a group of University students and professors with similar allegations as the first challenge to the law. State Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican, joined the cases as a defendant.
In 2011, Judge David Lawson of the federal district court for the Eastern District of Michigan granted Schuette’s motion for summary judgment, which had the effect of upholding Michigan’s constitutional amendment and banning affirmative action. The coalition and university plaintiffs appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court, which struck down the amendment, agreeing that it violated the Constitution and federal statutory law. The sixth circuit then reviewed the case again with the full number of judges serving on the court and agreed with the earlier decision striking down Michigan’s constitutional amendment.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments on the case.