Supreme Court upholds University of Michigan Law School affirmative action policy with 5-4 ruling

The United States Supreme Court upheld an affirmative action policy at the University of Michigan Law School in a 5-4 decision on June 23, 2003. The law school’s admission policy – at issue in Grutter v. Bollinger – used race as a factor to obtain a “critical mass” of minority students. In a 6-3 decision regarding undergraduate admissions at the University, the Court held that awarding 20 additional points to minority students violated the Constitution.

Essentially, the two rulings cement the notion that affirmative action policies are allowed in higher education, but that race may not play an excessive role in admissions systems. Concerning the law school’s policy, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote, “The Equal Protection Clause does not prohibit the law school’s narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.”

O’Connor also wrote, “Attaining a diverse student body is at the heart of the law school’s proper institutional mission. In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly opened to talented and  qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity.”

A “road map” for affirmative action policies

According to Bloomberg News, the ruling creates a “road map” for universities that want to consider race in admissions. Large state schools will have to expand their admissions staffs to give more individualized consideration to each applicant, said Jack Balkin, a Yale University law

“Large universities that are sufficiently committed to affirmative action will happily take on the additional cost,” Balkin said. Attorney Andrew Cohen reported for CBS News that the Court “solidly endorsed its own precedent created in 1978 in the landmark Bakke case.” In Bakke, the Court found that the University of California’s quota system for student applicants was unconstitutional, but that Harvard University’s more individualized admissions policy was permissible.

“It was the Bakke case, which gave us the legal standard by which the admissions policies of all public universities have been judged for the past generation. It was Bakke that gave us the gray area between illegal quotas and legal racial classifications,” Cohen reported.

The law school’s policy was “flexible,” “non-mechanical,” and “holistic” according to the majority opinion in Grutter, and therefore was not an illegal quota.

The ruling in Grutter may help public housing administrators formulate affirmative action and desegregation policies for public and assisted housing throughout the United States. Government-supported housing remains largely segregated as segregation in private residential housing continues to decline.

Ruling could help government-supported housing administrators formulate marketing plans

Site-based Section 8 complexes are required to have Affirmative Fair Housing Marketing Plans, which detail goals and targets for the numbers of minorities at each complex. Affirmative Fair Housing Marketing Plans are also required in other federal housing programs like HOPE VI, a program that rehabilitates public housing units to create a mix of low, moderate, and middle income housing. One of the goals of HOPE VI is to dismantle the racial segregation in neighborhoods with public housing complexes. Using Grutter guidelines, housing administrators should be able to formulate their marketing plans without the use of racial quotas.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) supported the Supreme Court’s ruling. The NASW said that it hoped administrators would continue using affirmative action plans as a way to counteract discrimination in education, employment, and housing. “While progress has been made as a result of civil rights action and legislation-discriminatory habits, customs, and attitudes do not change easily.”

Grutter v. Bollinger
539 U.S. 02-241
Before the United States Supreme Court
Argued: April 1, 2003
Opinion Issued: June 23, 2003