The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the state of Michigan’s voter-enacted ban on the consideration of race in admissions to state universities.
In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that the U.S. Constitution provides no authority for the judicial branch to “set aside” Michigan laws that provide the voters the right to decide whether considerations of race can be used in admissions or other governmental decisions.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito joined in the majority decision. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Clarence Thomas. Justice Stephen Breyer also wrote a concurring opinion.
“This case is not about the constitutionality, or the merits, of race-conscious admissions policies in higher education,” Kennedy wrote. “Here, the principle that the consideration of race in admissions is permissible is not being challenged. Rather, the question concerns whether, and in what manner, voters in the States may choose to prohibit the consideration of such racial preferences.”
Sotomayor authored the dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Writing that the Constitution places limits on what majorities may do, Sotomayor noted that this case implicates one of those limits: “the guarantee of equal protection of the laws.” In a dissent that traced a national history of racial minorities being denied participation in the political process, Sotomayor said equal protection does not end with prohibition of discrimination. Rather, the 15th amendment's equal protection clause protects the right of citizens to “participate meaningfully and equally in self government.”
“While our Constitution does not guarantee minority groups victory in the political process, it does guarantee them meaningful and equal access to that process,” she wrote. “It guarantees that the majority may not win by stacking the political process against minority groups permanently, forcing the minority alone to surmount unique obstacles in pursuit of its goals — here, educational diversity that cannot reasonably be accomplished through race-neutral measures.”
Associate Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from the case, citing a potential conflict of interest.
On October 15, 2013 the Supreme Court heard verbal arguments for and against this case, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, No. 12-682.
Law School Prof. Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union, said following Friday’s decision that the decision is a “blow” to Michigan residents who value diversity.
“The big losers are all citizens of Michigan,” Rosenbaum said. “It’s going to put genuine diversity out of reach, and that’s the greatness of this state.”
He said alumni or athlete status still is preferred in the admission process, but race is not.
The case centers on the legitimacy Michigan’s Proposal 2 referendum, a 2006 ballot proposal that forbade the use of race-based affirmative action within the state. The referendum, supported by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and State Attorney General Bill Schuette, passed into Michigan Constitutional law by an approval margin of 58 percent.
Because the referendum called to amend Michigan’s constitution to prohibit race-based discrimination, opponents to the proposal believe it violates the 14th amendment.
Rosenbaum argued Proposal 2’s unconstitutionality before the court on Oct. 15. He said a state constitutional ban on race-based admission policies creates two separate and unequal systems minority students must undergo to lobby the University.
While racial minorities cannot lobby the University directly for consideration of their needs, donors, athletic officials, church groups, alumni, and other groups can. Rosenbaum highlighted the unfair burden placed on minority students through this system in his remarks to the court.
The University has been at the forefront of Supreme Court cases surrounding affirmative action. In 2003, two landmark cases reached the highest court. Gratz v. Bollinger found the University’s point-based admissions process awarding race unconstitutional, and Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld the legality the affirmative action policies of the University’s Law School. With the installment of Prop. 2 in 2006, the University had to change the Law School’s admissions process, taking race out of the equation.
During a speech at the University in October, Jennifer Gratz of Gratz v. Bollinger, who has been a vocal opponent of affirmative action since the court ruled on her case in 2003, said the University’s vision of diversity is too focused on race.
“If the director of diversity was here right now, he or she couldn't tell you how many cello players there were,” Gratz said. “She couldn't tell you how many redheads there were. But she damn well could tell you how many Blacks, how many Hispanics, how many Native Americans there are. That right there is what they mean when they say diversity.”
On April 14, members of By Any Means Necessary organization protested the University’s Office of Admissions, demanding the University to work harder to improve minority enrollment.
At the time, due to Prop. 2, the University could not use race as a basis for consideration for acceptance into the University. Now, with the Supreme Court ruling, that ban will continue, despite some opposition from the University community.
Ted Spencer, associate vice provost and executive director of undergraduate admissions, listened to students’ concerns on April 12. He said the University evaluates candidates based on a holistic approach, taking an array of a candidate’s qualities into consideration before making the final decision.
“We look at everything that we can to try to figure out how could this student be successful at Michigan and would it be a good fit,” Spencer said on April 12. “We’ll put our record up against any school in the country. I talk to my friends at Stanford and at Princeton; they both say we use the same process to evaluate students.”
University President Mary Sue Coleman traveled to the Supreme Court in 2003 to fight for the continuation of affirmative action in admissions decisions. On Nov. 8, 2006, when the state voters outlawed the consideration of race in college admissions, Coleman spoke to a crowd of 1,700 students, staff and community members to voice her opposition to the measure.
“I am standing here today to tell you that I will not allow our university to go down the path to mediocrity. That is not Michigan,” Coleman said in 2006. “Diversity makes us strong, and it is too critical to our mission, too critical to our excellence, too critical to our future simply to abandon.”
—Daily News Editor Rachel Premack contributed to this report.
This is a developing story. Check back to michigandaily.com for more updates.
Correction appended: A previous version of this article misstated the date of oral arguments in the case. The correct year is 2013.