by Gabriel J. Chin, Professor of Law, University of California Davis School of Law
Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action (BAMN), decided this week, did not deal another blow to affirmative action, exactly, but it upheld an earlier attack. The justices, 6-2 with Justice Kagan recused, approved a Michigan law prohibiting voluntary affirmative action in higher education. The eight participating justices issued five separate opinions.
In 2006, the voters of Michigan responded to the Court’s 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, allowing affirmative action to promote educational diversity by passing an initiative banning it. The Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and Immigration Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary persuaded a panel of the Sixth Circuit, and then a majority of the court en banc, that Michigan’s ban was unconstitutional. The Sixth Circuit was on firm ground; Washington v. Seattle School District Number 1, a 1982 decision, invalidated an initiative banning voluntary bussing to achieve racial integration. The laws at issue were, seemingly, indistinguishable: Both involved initiatives meant to squelch voluntary measures to achieve racial integration, in situations where remedies where not legally required. The Seattle case built upon earlier decisions invalidating anti-civil rights initiatives.
I read Justice Kennedy, whose plurality opinion was joined by the Chief Justice and Justice Alito, as distinguishing Seattle School District Number 1 on a subtle point: the identity of the beneficiaries. Voluntary bussing to achieve integration has often been defended because it benefits the racial minorities or other disadvantaged pupils who are bussed. Prohibiting voluntary bussing harms minorities, and thus might be a subject of equal protection concern. The trick, though, is that since Bakke, in 1978, diversity has been the compelling interest justifying voluntary affirmative action in higher education. African-American students are not admitted under Bakke or Grutter primarily for their own benefit, but instead, for the benefit of other students – thus Richard Delgado’s famous observation that affirmative action is a “majoritarian device” for the benefit of whites. Since affirmative action in higher education cannot be primarily for the benefit of minorities, its elimination is also not necessarily to their disadvantage. Thus, unlike this case, Justice Kennedy explained, the older cases in which the court invalidated initiatives “were ones in which the political restriction in question was designed to be used, or was likely to be used, to encourage infliction of injury by reason of race.”