A new national precedent clarifying the use of race-conscious admissions policies is forthcoming, with the U.S. Supreme Court set to hear oral arguments for both lawsuits filed against the University’s admissions policies next spring.
The Court’s decision will mark an end to five years of legal wrangling over the University’s admissions policies and resolve conflicting opinions issued in the nation’s lower courts.
“We are ready to defend ourselves vigorously,” University President Mary Sue Coleman said after the Court yesterday announced its decision yesterday to hear the cases.
The University was sued in 1997 by two white applicants, Barbara Grutter and Jennifer Gratz, who were denied admission to the Law School and the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, respectively. The plaintiffs claim they were rejected from the University while less qualified minority applicants were admitted.
The Supreme Court will hear both the Law School and undergraduate admissions cases although the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has yet to rule on the undergraduate case.
The 6th Circuit upheld the University’s Law School admissions policies in a decision in May.
Despite previously asking the Supreme Court not to hear the cases, University officials said they were optimistic about the chances for a favorable Court ruling.
The decision comes as little surprise, University Assistant General Counsel Jonathan Alger said.
“All along we have developed our legal strategy with this possibility in mind,” Alger said. “We do believe we have very strong cases here – we are ready to go.”
The Center for Individual Rights, a Washington-based law firm, represents the plaintiffs in both cases.
CIR attorney Larry Purdy said they welcome a new Supreme Court standard on the use of race in admissions that will affect the entire nation.
“I would hope that they’ll agree unanimously that the use of race and the manner in which the University uses it is inappropriate and wrong,” Purdy said. “Such a ruling, particularly a unanimous ruling in that regard, would be … wonderful for every student of every race.”
Purdy said he was always confident the Supreme Court would hear the admissions cases given the division between the lower courts that have ruled on cases challenging the admissions policies of other public universities.
“These are clear splits in the approaches taken, and that is one reason the Supreme Court will step in to resolve these cases,” Purdy said.
While it is rare for the Court to hear a case not yet ruled on by a federal appeals court, it chose to hear Gratz v. Bollinger because it parallels and supports Grutter v. Bollinger, Wayne State University law Prof. Robert Sedler said.
“The Court wants to make clear that its decision will not be limited to law schools,” he said.
A group of intervenors representing the interests of minority high school students who they claim would be denied admission if the University’s policies changed, also defend the use of race in admissions, but for different reasons.
They will argue before the Supreme Court that societal discrimination can be remedied only by admissions policies that take race into account.
“Michigan currently has policies which, without affirmative action, would have a discriminatory effect on minorities,” said Ted Shaw, lead attorney for the intervenors in the undergraduate case.
“This is a question of whether we’ll continue to progress and not regress.”
Alger said a diverse student body allows students to learn from each other inside and outside the classroom.
“What we’re talking about is a matter of educational quality for all students,” Alger said. “That is an important part of our mission.”
He said the University’s consideration of race does not change the fact that all accepted students are academically qualified.
“No student is shielded from competition with other students because of their race,” he said.
Former University President Lee Bollinger, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuits, said a Supreme Court ruling on the University’s cases will be felt throughout higher education.
“This is not a University of Michigan case … it is really about relationships between parts of American society,” Bollinger told The Michigan Daily.
“It is a matter of confronting the issue and settling it – only the Supreme Court can do that,” he added.