Supreme Court to hear Michigan's affirmative action case on Monday
The stage has been set for what the NAACP has called "the most significant civil rights cases" the Supreme Court has ruled on in the last 25 years.
On Monday, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear arguments against race conscious admission procedures designed to promote ethnic diversity at the University of Michigan undergraduate and law schools.
"Certainly this is the most significant civil rights in education case in the last quarter century," said Princeton associate professor of politics Keith Whittington.
Undergraduate applicants to the U. Michigan Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hamacher filed a combined suit complaining they were denied spots in their respective classes while minority students of comparable academic backgrounds were guaranteed positions.
Another suit filed by Barbara Grutter, a U. Michigan law school applicant, cited admissions procedures as creating a "de facto quota."
Both cases argue that these admissions policies violate the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protect under the law and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance, such as public education institutions.
The argument in favor of what has now become known as affirmative action has roots in the U.S. courts about a quarter of a century ago from the 1978 case of Allen Bakke.
Bakke, a white applicant to the University of California at Davis medical school, was rejected while the college reserved 16 spots for minority students.
The case made it to the Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 against the university. The court found that the quota system was inherently unconstitutional.
However, the ninth and deciding vote in the case came from Judge Lewis Powell who wrote against the quotas but praised the Harvard plan — an admissions process where weight was given to race.
"The university pursuit of diversity was seen as constitutionally protected under the goal of the First Amendment," said Whittington. "Powell argued that diversity is sufficient to justify the use of race in the admissions process."
Campus diversity thus became the prevailing affirmative action argument.
Since that time, schools around the country, including Princeton, have come to model admissions procedures on the Powell doctrine.
"[T]here is no effective substitute for the consideration of race as one of the many factors in our admissions process," said Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman in The Washington Post. "Other methods do not allow us to recruit a diverse student body while maintaining our consistently high academic standards."
Analysts have speculated that the upcoming case will hinge on the swing vote of Judge Sandra Day O'Connor.
Whittington said the court's opinion if O'Connor votes against affirmative action will most likely be some sort of adjustment to the Bakke decision.
However, he added, the opportunity exists for a more radical course of action that might change the face of college admissions around the country.
"I don't want to speculate as to which way I would rule in terms of the importance of the objective, but I believe it can definitely become more narrowly tailored," said Stephen Smith '05, who interned this summer for the Tennessee Republican gubernatorial candidate, "especially in light of programs around the country that achieve diversity through other means than the Harvard system."
Depending on the scope of the opinion rendered, Princeton would not be immune to a change in admission policies.
On campus, opinions about affirmative action and the University's admissions policies are mixed.
"It seems like affirmative action has a purpose when it is used to correct some sort of social wrong or inequity when one racial or ethnic group is denied access to resources based solely on their race, ethnicity or creed," said Jefferson Pestronk '05, who is currently enrolled in POL 316: Constitutional Interpretation.
"At the other end of the spectrum, when race is the deciding factor when a more qualified candidate is denied a place solely because another applicant is a minority, it seems contrary to the whole idea of affirmative action in the first place."
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