WASHINGTON — Considering a college applicant’s
‘race’ is constitutional ruled the Supreme Court of the
United States in a 5-4 decision last Monday.
But in a 6-3 vote, it struck down the University of
Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and the
Arts’ policy of granting points for race.
The two judgments, which gave the University guidelines for how
race can be used in its admissions systems, were the culmination of
a six-year legal battle between the university and the rejected
white applicants who sued it.
The court accepted the university’s argument that the need
for a diverse student body justified affirmative action.
The scene outside the courtroom was reminiscent of the one two
months ago when oral arguments were heard in Grutter v. Bollinger
and Gratz v. Bollinger.
Civil rights leaders and university officials held impromptu
press conferences expressing their delight. University students and
alumni living in Washington, D.C. for the summer gathered to find
out about the decision, and some waited in long lines to obtain
copies of the opinions.
“This is a victory today,” said Theodore Shaw,
associate director-counsel of the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People. “This leaves the doors of
opportunity open for minority students.”
The decision was fortunate, given the current conservative
makeup of the court, he said. Seven of the nine justices received
their appointments from Republican presidents.
Writing for the majority in the Law School case, Justice Sandra
Day O’Connor said the need for diversity justifies using race
as an admissions factor, thus rejecting the claims made by the
plaintiffs that race should never be considered as an admissions
“Because universities, and in particular law schools,
represent the training ground for a large number of the
nation’s leaders … the path to leadership must be
visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race
and ethnicity,” her opinion states.
O’Connor wrote that the Law School policy “engages
in a highly individualized, holistic review of each
applicant’s file, giving serious consideration to all the
ways an applicant might contribute to a diverse educational
environment … The program adequately ensures that all
factors that may contribute to diversity are meaningfully
considered alongside race.”
But writing for the majority in the LSA case, Chief Justice
William Rehnquist wrote that “the only consideration that
accompanies the 20-point automatic distribution to all applicants
from under-represented minorities is a factual review to determine
whether an individual is a member of one of these minority groups
… The LSA’s 20-point distribution has the effect of
making ‘the factor of race … decisive’ for
virtually every minimally qualified underrepresented minority
O’Connor and Rehnquist have a total of 53 years of
experience on the court, in which they have gained reputations as a
pragmatic swing vote and a consistent conservative,
They are both rumored to retire in the near future, having
waited long enough to have a voice in a landmark case for which
they possess enormous passion for.
O’Connor faced enormous discrimination in the 1950s when
very few women graduated from law school. Rehnquist has repeatedly
opposed affirmative action policies since his 1971 entrance onto
the court and voted against the constitutionality of racial quotas
in the 1978 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke
Despite the split decision, University president Mary Sue
Coleman called the ruling “a tremendous victory” for
the University and all institutions of higher education. “The
court sent a clear message today that affirmative action may be
used in our admissions policies,” she said during a press
conference by telephone.
“The court has provided two important signals. The first
is a green light to pursue diversity in the college classroom. The
second is a road map to get us there,” Coleman said.
Although the court’s ruling forces the university to
modify the LSA admissions policy, which assigned 20 points out of a
possible 150 to black, Hispanic, or Native American applicants,
Coleman said the university will “find the route that
continues our commitment to a richly diverse student
The court has provided the university with a “road
map” for revising the LSA policy, stressing the need for a
more individualized review process, Coleman said.
“We really don’t anticipate much difficulty in
coming up with a new process,” she said. “We believe we
can do this. We’re not concerned about it at all.”
Coleman added that the new policy should be ready by this fall,
and that the ruling would not affect this year’s incoming
Terrence Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights,
which represented the plaintiffs, also called the ruling a victory
for opponents of affirmative action at a press teleconference.
“Today’s ruling is a mixed decision that signals the
beginning of the end for race-based admissions,” Pell said
“Today’s ruling was another victory for opponents of
affirmative action … because it signals a trend
The ruling leaves schools with “a slight crack” for
using racial plus factors, requiring them to conduct a “good
faith assessment” of all applicants, he said.
Pell added that voters now will be able to pass statewide ballot
initiatives that ban further use of race-conscious admissions, such
as those already passed in California and Washington. “The
Supreme Court doesn’t have the final word. States on their
own can consider (that a policy) like the Law School system
… is a bad system,” he said.
In a separate dissenting opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia
predicted the decision’s ambiguity would provoke more
lawsuits, including issues regarding the controversial definition
of critical mass, or whether a university is making a “good
faith effort” in achieving racial diversity.
In contrast, legal experts predicted a decrease in the number of
lawsuits, saying Grutter and Gratz have more legitimacy than Bakke
because they were written by majorities of the court.