2003 June 23

Supreme Court Issues Mixed Decisions on Univ. Michigan Affirmative Action Plans


The Supreme Court on this day issued two major decisions on affirmative action in college admissions, limiting but not ending racial preferences. Both involved affirmative action programs at the University of Michigan.

In Grutter v. Bollinger, the Court upheld the University of Michigan’s affirmative action plan for the Law School by a 5–4 majority. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s opinion held that the state had a compelling interest in a “narrowly tailored” affirmative action program designed to ensure a racially diverse student body because of the educational benefits that would result. O’Connor also wrote that the need for affirmative action would probably end within 25 years and that affirmative action plans should not have permanent status.

In another case decided on this day, Gratz v. Bollinger, the Court declared unconstitutional a system of automatically awarding 20 points out of a possible total of 100 to three racial groups: African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans. One hundred points was necessary for admission. The automatic points plan, in short, was not “narrowly tailored” as defined by the Court in the companion Grutter case.

One remarkable aspect of the two cases was the New York Times op-ed piece on August 8, 1999 by former President Gerald Ford, a Michigan alumnus,  supporting affirmative action. Ford’s conversations at a dinner, moreover, led to the development of what became known as “the military brief,” an amicus brief in support of affirmative action signed by some of the nation’s most distinguished former military leaders (such an action by on duty officers is not permitted). They included Norman Schwartzkopf, hero of the first Iraq war (1991), Wesley Clark, former supreme allied commander in Europe, William Cohen, former U.S. Senator and former Secretary of Defense, and two former superintendents of West Point.

The two Michigan cases marked the Supreme Court’s continuing efforts in wrestling with the legally and socially contentious issue of affirmative action and other race-preference systems. In the first important decision, Bakke v. Regents of the State of California, on June 28, 1978, the Court ruled that Mr. Bakke had been discriminated against under the affirmative action plan used by the University of California at Davis Medical School. Thirty-six years later, in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, on April 22, 2014, a more conservative Court than the one in the Gratz and Grutter decisions held that a Michigan state constitutional amendment banning affirmative action did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In a concurring opinion, Chief Justice Roberts wrote that race-based affirmative action programs may do more harm than good.

Learn more: Barbara Perry, The Michigan Affirmative Action Cases (2007)

And more: Howard Ball, The Bakke Case: Race, Education, and Affirmative Action (2000)

Learn more about affirmative action from the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights: http://www.civilrights.org/resources/civilrights101/affirmaction.html

Learn more from the ACLU about affirmative action: https://www.aclu.org/racial-justice/affirmative-action

Learn more at a timeline on affirmative action history: http://www.infoplease.com/spot/affirmativetimeline1.html

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