Supreme Court to Hear Affirmative Action Cases
Feature Story by Julie Fernandes - 12/3/2002The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to revisit the issue of affirmative action in university admissions for the first time in over twenty years. The Court announced that it would review two cases challenging the affirmative action programs at the University of Michigan: one involving the law school and the other the university's undergraduate program.
In the first case, the Court will review a decision issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, upholding the use of race as a factor in admissions to the University of Michigan Law School. The opinion, in Grutter v. Bollinger, overturned a lower court's decision that the admissions policy used by the law school impermissibly discriminated against white applicants. In upholding the Michigan admissions scheme, the majority noted that they were "satisfied that the law school's admissions policy sets appropriate limits on the competitive consideration of race and ethnicity." In its 5-4 decision, the 6th Circuit clearly affirmed that diversity is a compelling interest that permits the narrowly tailored use of race as a factor in admissions.
Civil rights groups across the country hailed the 6th Circuit's decision in Grutter, arguing that the decision reaffirmed that affirmative action remains a useful tool to help achieve equality of opportunity and to enrich the educational experience at higher educational institutions across the country.
The second case involves the affirmative action scheme that is part of the university's college admissions program. This system was upheld by the federal district court and is currently pending before the 6th Circuit. Nevertheless, in an unusual move, the Supreme Court also granted certiorari in this case, Gratz v. Bollinger, bypassing 6th Circuit review.
For many years, the Supreme Court has held that if the government wants to take race into account in administering a program or benefit, there must be a "compelling state interest" and the use of race must be "narrowly tailored" to meet that interest. At issue in both Michigan cases is whether "diversity" (i.e., having a diverse student body) is a compelling state interest that allows race to be a factor in admissions, and, if so, the affirmative actions schemes being challenged are narrowly tailored to satisfy that interest.
In 1978, the Supreme Court, in University of California v. Bakke, established that campus diversity can be a compelling governmental interest that permits the use of race as a factor in a narrowly tailored university admissions program. However, several recent decisions by lower federal courts - notably the 5th Circuit's 1996 decision in Hopwood v. University of Texas Law School - have encouraged some to question the continued validity of the Bakke decision. The Supreme Court's decision in the Michigan cases, expected to come at the end of this term, will likely provide public universities with more definitive guidance on the question.