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High Court Splits on University Affirmative Action Policies

In a second decision, the court struck down a point-based system used by the school’s undergraduate program, finding that the policy was not the correct way to achieve “educational diversity.”

The court split narrowly in deciding both cases, ruling 5 to 4 on the law school program and 6 to 3 on the undergraduate program in a set of complicated decisions that further fractured on many of the specific aspects of the laws in question.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, long viewed as the swing vote on many high-profile decisions, wrote the majority opinion in the law school case with the court’s more liberal justices.

“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,” Justice O’Connor wrote in a 32-page opinion.

The ruling allows tax-supported schools, and by extension private schools and other educational institutions, to continue to narrowly consider race and employ affirmative action policies as a way to boost minority enrollment without violating the Constitution’s ban on discrimination.

“[T]he diffusion of knowledge and opportunity through public institutions of higher education must be accessible to all individuals regardless of race or ethnicity,” O’Connor wrote. “Effective participation by members of all racial and ethnic groups in the civic life of our nation is essential if the dream of one nation, indivisible, is to be realized.”

Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer joined Justice O’Connor in backing the majority decision.

Justice Thomas, the court’s only African-American member, issued a separate 31-page opinion outlining his dissent on the ruling. Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy also dissented.

In his opinion, Justice Thomas quoted from an address given by noted abolitionist and the country’s leading 19th-century African American spokesman, Frederick Douglass, in 1865.

“Like Douglass, I believe blacks can achieve in every avenue of American life without the meddling of university administrators,” Thomas wrote.

Thomas wrote that while he wished to see all students succeed “whatever their color” and shared some sympathies with those who supported the policy, he did not find a constitutional basis for an “institutional devotion to the status quo in admissions policies when such devotion ripens into racial discrimination.”

In the ruling on the undergraduate case, Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the court’s decision, which found that in evaluating undergraduate applicants the university had violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.

Rehnquist was joined by Justices O’Connor, Scalia, Kennedy and Thomas as well as Justice Breyer, in part.

“The university’s policy, which automatically distributes 20 points, or one-fifth of the points needed to guarantee admission, to every single underrepresented minority applicant solely because of race, is not narrowly tailored to achieve the interest in educational diversity,” that Michigan claimed justified the policy, Rehnquist wrote.

In the undergraduate case, black, Hispanic and Native American applicants get 20 extra points out of a possible 150 points under a selection index that considered several academic and other factors as criteria for admission.

Justices Stevens, Souter and Ginsburg dissented from the ruling as did Justice Breyer, in part.

The law school challenge concerned Barbara Grutter, who applied for admission to the University of Michigan’s program in 1996. Grutter, who is white, was first placed on a waiting list and then rejected by the school despite what she considered strong qualifications.

Grutter later filed a class action lawsuit in a Michigan district court on behalf of herself and others who were denied admissions due to the law school’s policy of using race as a criterion for academic admissions.

The second case involved a similar claim against the University of Michigan’s undergraduate program that was first filed by Jennifer Gratz, a white student who claimed the university rejected her in 1995 while granting admission to less qualified minority applicants.

Gratz brought suit against the University of Michigan in 1997, her lawyers claiming they had proof she would have been admitted had she been a minority.

Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan, told reporters Monday that the rulings represented “a tremendous victory for the University of Michigan, for all of higher education, and for the hundreds of groups and individuals who supported us.”

The last time the Supreme Court ruled on affirmative action in education was in 1978 when Allan Bakke, a white applicant, sued the University of California at Davis’ medical school after he was rejected. The high court concluded that the university’s policy of specifically designating 16 of the 100 slots for the incoming class for minority students was unconstitutional because it constituted a quota.

The Supreme Court’s ruling on the Bakke case did not completely dismiss race-based admissions policies in their decision. Five of the justices found that while the university’s quota system was unconstitutional, it was lawful to take race into account in university admissions.

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