The two admissions cases that begin oral arguments today in the U.S. Supreme Court, Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger, represent the culmination of a long history of court litigation that has attempted to define the legal role of race in society.

Homer Plessy – jailed in 1892 for refusing to move to a black railroad car – sued the state of Louisiana in 1896, claiming that the policy of separate cars violated the 13th and 14th amendments. The court decided against him in the infamous “separate but equal” ruling, establishing the precedent that races could be divided socially and administratively but still be treated the same.

Plessy v. Ferguson established a policy of de jure – or legally mandated – segregation that persisted until the court reevaluated the issue in 1954, after Linda Brown was barred from attending a white elementary school.

The court struck down de jure segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, determining that it is inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional. Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the first black Supreme Court justice, argued on Brown’s behalf.

Racial segregation was deemed unconstitutional, but the debate over methods of integration was far from over. The University of California at Davis began using a racial quota system in its medical school admissions in 1969, reserving 16 of 100 seats in each class for minorities. The policy was in no small part sparked by President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which contained the first mention of “affirmative action.”

In 1978, Allen Bakke, a white applicant, claimed he was not admitted to Davis because of the racial quotas it used. Bakke claimed that because he was rejected – although his MCAT scores and grade point average were higher than those of admitted minority applicants – he had become an object of discrimination.

In a close decision, four of the nine justices ruled in favor of Bakke and four against. Justice Lewis Powell broke the tie in favor of Bakke. In his decision, however, he said that race was a valid factor in admissions as long as it served a “compelling government interest.” Racial quotas, being inflexible, did not serve this interest and were therefore unconstitutional, Powell said. He added that any system using racial preference is “inherently suspect,” and must be reviewed carefully.

The University of Michigan began considering race in its admissions even before the Bakke ruling, but its legal battle to defend the policies began in 1997 with a challenge from the Center for Individual Rights. The Washington-based firm sued on behalf of Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hamacher – who were denied admission to the College of Literature, Science and the Arts – and Barbara Grutter, who was not accepted to the Law School.

A third party entered the case in August 1999 when several groups filed a motion to take part in the cases. These intervenors included such groups as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union.

The University defended its policies on the grounds that they created a diverse student body, which in turn improved the learning environment of all its students. The intervenors took a different stand, arguing that the consideration of race was necessary to offset racial discrimination.

In December 2000, a federal court judge upheld the University’s undergraduate admissions program. U.S. District Court Judge Patrick Duggan said diversity is “a compelling governmental interest and that the University’s current undergraduate admissions program meets the standards set by the Supreme Court in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke.”

But Duggan also ruled that the University’s grid system, formerly used to evaluate applicants, was unconstitutional. But by then, the University had changed to its current point system – assigning 20 points out of 150 to Hispanics, blacks and Native Americans – which Duggan ruled permissible.

Duggan also ruled that using race in admissions to remedy past discrimination was not justified, although using it in the interest of diversity was.

But a few months later, the University suffered a defeat when U.S. District Court Judge Bernard Friedman said colleges and universities may not use race in admissions.

Both cases went on to the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which overturned Friedman’s ruling on the Law School case in a 5-4 decision in May 2002. The court never ruled on the undergraduate case.

CIR appealed the decisions to the Supreme Court, which accepted both cases in December 2002.

Since then, the lawsuits have sparked a national debate about the value and morality of race-conscious admissions. About 300 individuals and groups, including Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and corporations such as General Motors, expressed their support for the University by filing amicus briefs with the court.

Others, including President Bush, filed in opposition to the University policies. Bush’s brief claims that while diversity is important in education, “percent plans” used in Texas and Florida offer a race-neutral alternative to achieve that diversity.

Today the Supreme Court will continue to hear both the undergraduate and Law School cases, which will set a new standard for race’s status under law.

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