From Plessy v. Ferguson to the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the Supreme Court has reshaped the nation’s policies on diversity in higher education. The High Court will once again assess the precedents it has set when it hears arguments next spring in two cases challenging the University of Michigan’s race-conscious admissions policies.
The Court’s ruling in 1896 in the case Plessy set a precedent that would be followed for more than 60 years.
The case concerned a black man named Homer Plessy, who was jailed in 1892 for refusing to move from a car designated for whites in a train on the East Louisiana Railroad. Plessy sued the state of Louisiana, charging the policy of separate cars violated the 13th and 14th Amendments. But the judge in the case, John Howard Ferguson, ruled against Plessy.
The Supreme Court heard the case and upheld the previous decision. In an 8-1 decision, the Court ruled that separate facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional as long as they were equal.
But when the Court revisited the issue 60 years later in Brown v. Board of Education, it struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine, a decision that integrated schools throughout the country.
Linda Brown was a black girl who was denied entrance to a white elementary school in Topeka, Kansas. Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall argued the case before the high court in 1952. It took the Court two years to come to a decision, but it finally issued a unanimous decision declaring separate but equal policies violated the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection of the law all U.S. citizens.
The Supreme Court next addressed the issue of race and education in 1978, when a sharply divided court issued three separate opinions in Bakke.
Allan Bakke alleged he was denied admission to the University of California at Davis Medical School because he was white. Prior to the Bakke ruling, the school reserved 16 out of 100 openings in its medical school for minority applicants, who were chosen from a separate pool of candidates.
Four of the nine Supreme Court justices ruled the use of any racial quota was impermissible, while four of the five remaining justices held that race could be used as a factor in admissions to remedy past discrimination in very specific situations.
Justice Lewis Powell cast the tie-breaking vote for both opinions, forcing the University of California at Davis to admit Bakke but declaring race a valid consideration in admissions. But he also wrote that race could be taken into account as one of many factors to achieve diversity.
While the cloudy decision reached in Bakke resolved the issue for nearly two decades, but the battle over diversity in higher education was reignited in 1996 when the Center for Individual Rights filed the first of three lawsuits challenging the admissions policies in three universities across the country. The University of Michigan was one of them.
The Supreme Court refused to hear cases concerning the universities of Texas and Washington, which resulted in opposing decisions at the circuit court level. The two cases against the University of Michigan are the only ones concerning race and higher education still in the legal pipeline.
In October 1997, Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hamacher, two white applicants who were denied admission to the University of Michigan, filed a lawsuit against the University on the grounds that its undergraduate admissions policies discriminated against white applicants.
Barbara Grutter filed a similar lawsuit against the University’s Law School in December 1997 after being denied admission to the Law School.
In February 1998 a third party, the intervenors, entered the picture, filing a motion to be included in the cases. The interveners included the groups the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation.
The intervenors said they support the use of race in admissions as a means to remedy past discrimination, while the University supports race-conscious admission policies as a way to create a diverse learning environment.
In August 1999, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the intervention in both cases.
In December 2000, U.S. District Court Judge Patrick Duggan issued his opinion, saying 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 he also declared a grid system the University had employed to evaluate applicants to be unconstitutional. The University had reformed its policies, and Duggan ruled the new system was permissible. Duggan dismissed the intervenors’ claim that the University was justified in using race as a factor in admissions to remedy the effects of past discrimination.
In March 2001, District Judge Bernard Friedman ruled against the University and also denied the intervenors’ claims, stating in his opinion that the law does not permit colleges and universities to use race in admissions.
Though Friedman issued an injunction baring the Law School from using race as a factor in admissions, the 6th Circuit issued a stay of the injunction, allowing the Law School to continue its policy.
Both cases were appealed to the 6th Circuit, and the appeals court heard arguments in both cases in back-to-back hearings in December 2001. The court issued its decision in Grutter v. Bollinger in May, ruling in favor of the University and reversing Judge Friedman’s previous decision that declared the University’s use of race in admissions unconstitutional.
The appeals court has not issued a decision in Gratz v. Bollinger.
CIR appealed the 6th Circuit’s decision to the Supreme Court, which accepted both the undergraduate and Law School cases yesterday morning.