A decade-long court battle over the University’s affirmative action policies ended yesterday when a district court dismissed Gratz v. Bollinger after a settlement was reached.
Under the terms of the settlement, the University will pay Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hamacher $10,000 each for incidental expenses related to the litigation. In turn, they will drop all claims against the University.
The University will not pay Gratz and Hamacher any damages.
Yesterday’s settlement brings to an end what was perhaps the most important court case in the University’s 190-year history. By appearing in headlines nationwide, it helped define the University as one of the foremost champions of affirmative action.
In 1997, after being denied admission to the University, Gratz and Hamacher filed a lawsuit claiming that the University’s race-based affirmative action policies caused them to be unfairly rejected because they were white.
Then-University President Lee Bollinger passionately defended the University’s consideration of race and committed the University to a court battle that would eventually make its way to the Supreme Court.
Because California voters had banned affirmative action programs a year earlier, the court challenge refocused the national debate over affirmative action on the University of Michigan.
By the time the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan finally heard oral arguments on the case in November 2000, the case had already garnered a considerable amount of public attention.
Numerous corporations, unions and civic and religious organizations lined up behind the University in support of affirmative action. When the University filed its Supreme Court briefs in February 2003, more than 300 outside organizations had joined the University in its defense of affirmative action policies.
On Dec. 13, 2000, Judge Patrick Duggan of the district court ruled that the University’s admissions policies between 1995 and 1998 were unconstitutional but upheld its admissions policies for 1999 and 2000. Bollinger called this verdict “an unequivocal ruling in our favor” and said the court affirmed that considering race was “completely justified.”
But the case was not to end there.
The University continued to consider race in admissions as the Gratz case made its way though the appeals process and court after court refused to issue an injunction prohibiting the University from considering race.
In December 2002, the Supreme Court decided to hear the Gratz case as well as a similar case, Grutter v. Bollinger, challenging the University of Michigan Law School admissions policies.
At the time, many speculated that the conservative-leaning Supreme Court might rule against the University, delivering a devastating blow to affirmative action programs.
Any questions about the national impact of the case ended in January 2003, when the Bush administration entered the debate in opposition to the University’s policies. Former Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry filed an amicus brief with the court in support of the University.
Then-University Provost Paul Courant remembered how supporters of affirmative action saw the University in the run up to the Supreme Court case.
“We would hear ‘Thank you’ wherever we went,” Courant told The Michigan Daily in November. “That really is leadership.”
In an opinion written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the Supreme Court struck down the University’s point-based undergraduate admissions system but upheld the Law School’s use of affirmative action and upheld race as a legitimate consideration in admissions policies.
The case was then returned to the district court for further proceedings.
University President Mary Sue Coleman immediately declared the Gratz ruling a victory. “This is a tremendous victory for the University of Michigan, for all higher education, and for the hundreds of groups and individuals who supported us,” Coleman said in a written statement.
Yet the University’s victory in the Gratz ruling would prove to be temporary.
Defeated in the courts, opponents of the University’s race-based admissions policies turned their efforts to the ballot box.
Last fall, Gratz served as the executive director of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, a group that led the campaign in favor of Proposal 2, a state constitutional amendment that banned the University from considering race, gender and ethnic origin in admissions, hiring and contracting.
In 2005, the courts slashed the attorneys’ fees that the University owed the plaintiffs from $2 million to $670,000. Shortly afterward, the courts ruled that in order to be awarded any damages, each plaintiff would have to demonstrate that the University’s policies caused them direct harm, which the plaintiffs could not do. It was then that they began settlement discussions with the University.