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June-23-03

Supreme Court Upholds Principle of Affirmative Action in MI Case But Strikes Down Explicit Program

In two decisions on the landmark University of Michigan cases, the US Supreme Court announced rulings today that uphold the use of race in law school admissions but strike down the undergraduate admissions affirmative action program. The undergraduate system of explicit points awarded for underrepresented minority groups was struck down but a vague system sensitive to achieving diversity for the law school was upheld. "Although it is tragic that applicants can still receive points for athletic ability or to foster regional diversity but not for being part of an underrepresented minority group," said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority. "At least affirmative action lives!"

In Gratz v. Bollinger, the court struck down with a 6-3 vote the school's undergraduate affirmative action program (Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented). Nder the undergraduate system the school awards minority students 20 points out of a 150-point system, of which fully 110 points are given for academic factors such as grades and test scores. Low-income students can also receive 20 points through this system (though applicants who are both low-income and minority cannot receive 20 points for each factor). Applicants also receive 16 points for being from Michigan's upper peninsula, and can earn various points for leadership, service, and life experiences. Every student has to have minimum qualifications for admission. The court ruled that the point system was in effect a quota system and "not narrowly tailored to achieve educational diversity," according to the majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Rehnquist. However, as Justice Souter (joined by Justice Ginsburg) wrote in his dissenting opinion, Michigan does not use a "quota" system because rather than prohibiting non-minority students from competing for certain opportunities, Michigan takes race into consideration as one of many factors affecting an individual's admission.

In Grutter v. Bollinger, the high court upheld with a 5-4 vote the University of Michigan's law school policy that seeks a "critical mass" of minority students - Justice Sandra Day O'Connor supplied the necessary swing vote. "The US Constitution 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 wrote in the majority opinion as reported by Reuters.

These decisions will directly affect all institutions of higher education and could have implications for affirmative action programs in employment and other areas as well. The University of Michigan's affirmative action policy has drawn wide support from a range of groups, including high-ranking military officials, Fortune 500 companies, and the civil and women's rights community. The Bush administration was opposed to both the undergraduate and law school affirmative action programs at the University of Michigan.

LEARN MORE Read a Ms. magazine report on the case from the Spring 2003 issue

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Media Resources: Associated Press 6/23/03; Reuters 6/23/03; Leadership Council for Civil Rights Press Release 6/23/03; Grutter v. Bollinger Syllabus 6/23/03; Gratz v. Bollinger Syllabus 6/23/03

   

     

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