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SCOTUS upholds Michigan affirmative-action ban

April 23, 2014

The Supreme Court of the United States by a vote of 6-2 Tuesday upheld Michigan’s constitutional amendment banning the use of affirmative action by its public universities.

Justice Anthony Kennedy delivered the decision in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, 12-682, upholding Article I, Section 26 of the Michigan Constitution, which prohibits the use of race-based preferences as part of the admissions process for state universities. Michigan residents voted to add that language to their Constitution.

Kennedy pointed out the issue before the court is about whether and in what manner voters in the states may choose to prohibit the consideration of such racial preferences.

In 2003 the Supreme Court reviewed the constitutionality of two admissions systems at the University of Michigan, one for its undergraduate class and one for its law school, which permitted the explicit consideration of an applicant’s race. The undergraduate admissions plan was addressed in Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U. S. 244, in which the justices invalidated the plan as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. The law school admission plan was addressed in Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U. S. 306, in which the court found no constitutional flaw in the law school admission plan’s more limited use of race-based preferences.

As a result of those decisions, voters in 2006 adopted the amendment at issue that includes a prohibition of race-based preferences as part of the admissions process for state universities.

“This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved. It is about who may resolve it. There is no authority in the Constitution of the United States or in this Court’s precedents for the Judiciary to set aside Michigan laws that commit this policy determination to the voters. Deliberative debate on sensitive issues such as racial preferences all too often may shade into rancor. But that does not justify removing certain court-determined issues from the voters’ reach.  Democracy does not presume that some subjects are either too divisive or too profound for public debate,” Kennedy wrote.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed a 58-page dissent, in which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined. Sotomayor wrote, “While our Constitution does not guarantee minority groups victory in the political process, it does guarantee them meaningful and equal access to that process. It guarantees that the majority may not win by stacking the political process against minority groups permanently, forcing the minority alone to surmount unique obstacles in pursuit of its goals—here, educational diversity that cannot reasonably be accomplished through race-neutral measures. Today, by permitting a majority of the voters in Michigan to do what our Constitution  forbids, the Court ends the debate over race-sensitive admissions  policies in Michigan in a manner that contravenes constitutional protections long recognized in our precedents.”

Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the case.

 

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