Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Michigan Affirmative Action Case

On October 15th, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a challenge to Michigan’s Proposal 2, a 2006 ballot measure that led to a state constitutional ban on race-conscious college admissions policies.

The arguments were heard by the eight-member court in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action about whether Michigan’s voters violated the constitution by forbidding race-conscious admissions plans at state’s public universities in another chapter in the decades-long debate over what constitutes fair admissions.

In 2003, Supreme Court upheld the use of race as one factor of many in law school admissions to ensure educational diversity. In 2006, Michigan’s voters approved Proposal 2, amending the State Constitution to prohibit discrimination or preferential treatment in public education, government contracting and public employment, writes Adam Liptak of The New York Times.

In 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati ruled that the initiative, which amended the State Constitution, violated the federal Constitution’s equal protection clause.

The court seemed divided with the five more conservative justices generally inclined to uphold the ballot measure. Groups who favor affirmative action sued to block the part of the law concerning higher education.

Mark D. Rosenbaum, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union representing a group of applicants, students and faculty members, said that Proposal 2 violated equal protection principles by restructuring the state’s political process and making it harder for disfavored minorities to press for change.

But Michigan’s solicitor general John J. Bursch said Proposal 2 does not violate equal protection requiring equal treatment. According to Bursch, minority admissions in Michigan were affected only modestly in the year after Proposal 2 was adopted. He said many students chose not to identify themselves as members of a single racial or ethnic group on a new form, so later statistics are not reliable.

California banned race-conscious admissions plans at the state’s public universities in 1996. The state discovered that underrepresented minority students have higher GPA and graduation rates 20% to 25% higher than beore, Bursch said, adding that Texas experienced similar trends in the years that affirmative action programs were barred there.

“It’s not a racial classification,” Justice Antonin Scalia said of the ballot initiative. “It’s the prohibition of racial classifications.” While Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg saw matters differently. “We can’t put hurdles in the way of a disadvantaged minority,” she said.

US Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked whether some minority students actually suffered a disadvantage by being admitted into academic settings where they could not thrive. The chief justice was referring to research on this “mismatch” theory from Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr., who had filed a brief supporting Michigan.

“Do we have to assume in your favor that these definitely are beneficial to particular minority groups?” Chief Justice Roberts asked, referring to race-conscious admissions plans.

If the Supreme Court strikes down the Michigan measure, its ruling could also invalidate California’s ban, along with similar statutes in Arizona, Florida, Oklahoma, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Washington.