Affirmative Action Upheld by Split Court
Associated Press Writer
June 23, 2003
By ANNE GEARAN
WASHINGTON (AP) -- In its most significant statement about race in a generation,
a divided Supreme Court allowed the nation's colleges and universities to select
students based in part on race, ruling Monday that diverse classrooms mold good
citizens and strong leaders.
The court emphasized that race cannot be the overriding factor, but a majority
acknowledged a broad social value from affirmative action - in encouraging all
races to learn and work together.
"In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the
citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to
talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity," Justice Sandra
Day O'Connor wrote for the 5-4 majority.
At issue was whether admissions policies that give one racial group an edge
unconstitutionally discriminate against other groups.
In two decisions involving the University of Michigan, the court underscored
that racial quotas are unconstitutional but left room for the nation's public
universities - and by extension other public and private institutions - to seek
ways to take race into account.
"The court has in essence provided the nation with a road map on how to
construct affirmative action programs in higher education that are
constitutionally acceptable," said NAACP President Kweisi Mfume.
The court preserved the rules outlined 25 years ago in a landmark ruling that
underpin the consideration of race at institutions or gatherings as diverse as
military academies, corporate boardrooms and campus leadership retreats.
In the earlier ruling a different group of justices struck down a quota system
that had excluded a white student from medical school, but they allowed less
structured forms of affirmative action.
On Monday, the court struck down a point-based screening system for applicants
that automatically gave minorities a 20-point bonus out of a possible 150.
The cases put the Bush administration in an awkward spot. The White House had
sided with white applicants rejected at the Michigan schools without endorsing
an outright end to affirmative action.
"There are innovative and proven ways for colleges and universities to reflect
our diversity without using racial quotas," President Bush said after Monday's
ruling. "The court has made clear that colleges and universities must engage in
a serious, good faith consideration of workable race-neutral alternatives."
In the end, the high court made only bare mention of the administration's
argument that race-neutral alternatives to affirmative action are already
working in Bush's home state of Texas and elsewhere.
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
O'Connor said the value of diverse classrooms extends far beyond the campus.
Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer
joined her endorsement of a program in place at the University of Michigan's law
The law school uses an inexact admissions formula that gives extra
consideration to blacks, Hispanics and to applicants from other groups the
school says have historically suffered from discrimination.
The program has produced minority enrollment of between 12 percent and 20
percent over the past decade. There is no fixed target, the school said.
"This court has long recognized that 'education is the very foundation of good
citizenship,'" O'Connor wrote, quoting from another landmark ruling, the Brown
v. Board of Education decision that integrated public schools.
"For this reason, the 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.
At the same time, the court struck down a more rigid, point-based admissions
policy for University of Michigan undergraduates. That vote was 6-3, with three
of the court's more liberal justices dissenting.
The difference was a matter of degree. The Constitution permits schools to
consider an applicant's race as one among many factors when weighing which
students will win a place at a top-notch school, O'Connor wrote in the more
significant law school ruling. What a school cannot do, she and other justices
said, is install inflexible or automatic racial preferences.
The law school and its backers argued that a "critical mass" of minority
students is essential to break down racial stereotypes and benefits the entire
student body. Minorities must be present in more than token numbers to ensure
all students can interact, the university has said.
But no student's transcript will note that he or she "Works and Plays Well With
Others," Justice Antonin Scalia retorted, in mocking reference to language more
often associated with grade school report cards.
The importance of "cross-racial understanding," or of simply getting along with
other people, is a lesson of life learned by "people three feet shorter and 20
years younger than the full-grown adults at the University of Michigan Law
School, in institutions ranging from Boy Scout troops to public school
kindergartens," Scalia wrote in dissent.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence
Thomas also dissented in the law school case.
Thomas, the court's only black justice, accused the law school of maintaining
"an exclusionary admissions system that it knows produces racially
"Racial discrimination is not a permissible solution to the self-inflicted
wounds of this elitist admissions policy," he wrote.
Michigan says it accepts only academically qualified students, no matter their
In the companion case, O'Connor joined Rehnquist, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and
Stephen Breyer to strike down the undergraduate school's 150-point grading
system. Minority status was worth more than some measures of academic
excellence, writing ability or leadership skills. Outstanding athletes also got
20 points, as did impoverished applicants.
Stevens, Souter and Ginsburg dissented.
Affirmative action programs should not go on forever, O'Connor wrote. "We expect
that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be
The law school case is Grutter v. Bollinger, 02-241; the undergraduate case is
Gratz v. Bollinger, 02-516.
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