Justices to Consider Michigan Ban on Race-Conscious Admissions Policy

March 25, 2013

by Jeremy Leaming

The U.S. Supreme Court may rule soon on the constitutionality of a race-conscious admissions policy employed by the University of Texas at Austin, but as the AP’s Mark Sherman reports that justices are ready to consider another case involving a race-conscious admissions – this time a state ban on the use of such policies.

The justices have already heard oral argument in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, regarding a white woman’s challenge to the university’s admissions policy, which takes an array of factors, including race, into account when building its student body. SCOTUSblog’s Lyle Denniston notes that while the justices in Fisher could potentially produce a broad ruling, they could as easily craft a narrow one that may “not go much beyond that plan.”

The Michigan case, Schuette v. Michigan Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, however could prove to be a platform for a more sweeping announcement on race-conscious admissions policies. Denniston writes that the Michigan case “involves a move by a state to deny its public colleges and universities any right to use race as a factor in choosing the incoming class of students. It thus has the potential to produce a far more sweeping decision.”

As Sherman notes, the Michigan movement to pass a law outlawing race-conscious admissions policy “has its roots” in the high court’s 2003 opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger. In Grutter, a majority of the Court led by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor upheld the University of Michigan law school’s race-conscious admissions policy. The majority concluded that the school’s use of race it its admission policy supported a compelling educational interest and did not violate the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

After the Grutter opinion, opponents of race-conscious admissions policies formed to advocate for a ballot initiative, Proposal 2, banning the state’s universities and colleges from using such policies. After voters approved the initiative, a group of civil liberties groups, including the NAACP LDF, formed to lodge a lawsuit against Proposal 2. Eventually the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled against Proposal 2, saying it subverted equal protection rights.

LDF’s President and Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill said today that Michigan’s Proposal 2 “unconstitutionally gerrymanders Michigan’s political process and relegates the critical topics of racial diversity and access to educational opportunity to a separate, distant, and far more cumbersome playing field – one that is unplayable for all practicable purposes.”

LDF notes Proposal 2 has already led to a decline of minority enrollment, citing a University of Michigan study that shows African-American “undergraduate enrollment fell from 6.7 percent in 2006 to 4.5 percent in 2010.”

The justices heard oral argument in Fisher last fall.