June 23, 2003
Posted at: 9:55 a.m. CDT
WASHINGTON - In two split decisions, the Supreme Court on Monday ruled that minority applicants may be given an edge when applying for admissions to universities, but limited how much a factor race can play in the selection of students.
The high court struck down a point system used by the University of Michigan, but did not go as far as opponents of affirmative action had wanted. The court approved a separate program used at the University of Michigan law school that gives race less prominence in the admissions decision-making process.
The court divided in both cases. It upheld the law school program that sought a "critical mass" of minorities by a 5-4 vote, with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor siding with the court's more liberal justices to decide the case.
The court split 6-3 in finding the undergraduate program unconstitutional. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote the majority opinion in the undergraduate case, joined by O'Connor and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer.
Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented.
Michigan's undergraduate admissions structure is tantamount to a quota, the majority in that case concluded. While it set no fixed target for the number of minority students who should get in, the point-based evaluation system gave minority applicants a 20-point boost.
Government has a compelling interest in promoting racial diversity on campus, but the undergraduate school's admissions policy is not the way to get there, the court majority said.
The ruling affects tax-supported schools, and by extension private schools and other institutions, that have looked for ways to boost minority enrollment without violating the Constitution's guarantee against discrimination.
The University of Michigan cases are the most significant test of affirmative action to reach the court in a generation. At issue was whether racial preference programs unconstitutionally discriminate against white students.
The rulings follow the path the court set a generation ago, when it outlawed quotas but still left room for schools to improve the odds for minority applicants.
The two Michigan cases directly address only admissions at public, tax-supported institutions. But the court's rationale is expected to have a wide ripple through private colleges and universities, other government decision-making and the business world.
Opponents of affirmative action had hoped the Supreme Court would use this opportunity to ban most consideration of race in any government decisions. The court is far more conservative than in 1978, when it last ruled on affirmative action in higher education admissions, and the justices have put heavy conditions on government affirmative action in other arenas over the past decade.
Defending its general approach to affirmative action, the university has said that having what it calls a critical mass of minority students benefits the whole student body. Minorities must be present in more than token numbers to ensure all students can interact, the university has said.
Michigan insists that it accepts only academically qualified students, no matter what their race.
Michigan's undergraduate school used a 150-point index to screen applicants. The 20 points awarded to minorities was more than the school awarded for some measures of academic excellence, writing ability or leadership skills. Outstanding athletes also got 20 points, as did impoverished applicants.
The school has also "flagged" minority applications, making it easier to keep an applicant in the pool even if he or she flunked an initial review.
In 1997, the year that two white students sued, the school had 13,500 applicants and selected 3,958 of them as freshmen.
The white plaintiffs, Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hamacher, were Michigan residents with good grades and other qualifications when they were rejected at the flagship Ann Arbor campus. Both have since graduated from other colleges.
The Bush administration sided with the students, but did not call for an outright end to affirmative action.
The students were supported by a range of conservative legal groups, some law professors and affirmative action opponents.
The university's law school program uses a separate, less structured system to promote minority enrollment.
The law school case is Grutter v. Bollinger, 02-241; the undergraduate case is Gratz v. Bollinger, 02-516.