NBC News correspondent
updated 6/9/2003 3:58:33 AM ET 2003-06-09T07:58:33

In a the high court struck down a point system used by the University of Michigan, as part of it’s affirmative action program. This legal battle presented the United States Supreme Court with its most important civil rights case in 25 years, challenging the use of racial preferences in school admissions. While also upholding a law school affirmative action program at the Michigan, the court’s ruling found the structure of the undergraduate admission program was tantamount to a quota system.

Case: Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hamacher v. Lee Bollinger and the University of Michigan

Supreme Court #:

Argument Date: Tuesday, April 1, 2003

Decision Date: Monday, June 23, 2003

Issue: Does the University of Michigan’s affirmative action admissions policy in its undergraduate program violate the Constitution by impermissibly considering a minority student’s race as a favorable factor?

Background: Along with a similar lawsuit from the university’s law school, this legal battle presents the Supreme Court with its most important civil rights case in 25 years — challenging the use of racial preferences in school admissions. The challengers claim the programs improperly discriminate on the basis of race. The university responds that it can use racial preferences to achieve a diverse student body. The court’s decision will determine the future of affirmative action at public and private colleges and universities nationwide.

Because of a difference in the facts and the associated legal arguments, the two cases are being treated separately before the court [see separate item on law school case, Grutter v. Bollinger].

Jennifer Gratz applied for admission to the University of Michigan in 1995 with a grade point average of 3.8 and an ACT score of 25. Patrick Hamacher applied for admission in 1997 with a GPA of 3.0 and an ACT score of 28. Both were turned down and went elsewhere to college. Gratz graduated in 1999, Hamacher in 2001.

In October 1997, while they were going to college, they decided to sue the University of Michigan over its admissions policies, filing a class-action lawsuit.

The University has a policy of favoring applicants who are members of three racial minority groups considered underrepresented on campus — African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans. Both sides in this case agree that the policy has the effect of admitting nearly all qualified applicants from these groups.

At the time the lawsuit was filed, the university used a two-track system for admissions. With comparable grades and test scores, students from the three underrepresented minority groups were admitted at higher rates than other students. For the class entering in 1995, for example, 100 percent of the minority students were admitted with scores and GPA’s comparable to those of Jennifer Gratz, while 32 percent of non-minority students were admitted.

Gratz cites these statistics to argue that she was the victim of reverse discrimination. However, the university says grades and test scores “are by no means the only relevant factors” in deciding whether to admit a student. For example, the school says that in 1995, more than 1,400 non-minority students with GPA’s and test scores lower than hers were admitted, while more than 2,000 non-minority students with higher scores were rejected.

The university agrees that it admits virtually all minority applicants with competitive records but says that’s because so few qualified minority applicants apply. Only 6 percent of high school students with grades of B or better, and SAT scores above 1200, are African-American, Hispanic, or Native American, the school says.

The school discarded the two-track system beginning with the 1998 entering class, switching to a single grid for admissions that awarded points on a scale of 0 to 150. The system awarded up to 80 points for grades, 12 for standardized test scores, 18 for the quality of the applicant’s high school and curriculum, 10 points for Michigan residency, 4 for alumni relationships, with small point awards for essays, personal achievement, and leadership qualities. A student in an underrepresented minority group was given 20 points.

The federal judge who heard the lawsuit declared the two-track admissions system unlawful but upheld the more recent point system, ruling that achieving student diversity was a legitimate interest, allowing the university to make distinctions based on race. The students appealed, and a federal appeals court heard argument in December 2001. But the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, along with the law school case, before the appeals court reached a decision.

In the background of this case is the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1978 decision in a case involving a white student named Allan Bakke who was denied admission to medical school. He claimed that the University of California’s practice of reserving some slots for minority student amounted to reverse discrimination. Bakke won and the school was ordered to admit him, but the court’s decision produced no clear holding. Lower courts have generally interpreted it to mean that while schools cannot use strict racial quotas, they may take a student’s race into consideration in order to achieve a diverse student body.


For Gratz and Hamacher

David Herr, Minneapolis

The university has not met its heavy burden of justifying the racial preferences that it employs in student admissions. The large, mechanical preferences given to members of racial or ethnic groups that the University deems to be “underrepresented” on the campus are not designed to achieve any result but racial balancing.

The automatic award of a fixed preference to every member of a specified racial or ethnic group is nothing like what the Supreme Court’s Bakke decision allowed. That decision rejected the systematic award of preferences based solely on race or ethnicity, but the University’s preferences entail just that. Bakke also struck down racial quotas in admissions, but the University of Michigan’s system is certainly the functional equivalent of one. The university’s admissions policies maintain a race-based double standard in admissions. The purpose and effect of the University’s policies is to admit all “qualified” members from the preferred minority groups, while requiring “qualified” applicants from all other groups to compete for the scarce places remaining in the class. These preferences are certainly more potent than those struck down in Bakke, in which many qualified minorities were rejected, and in which the preference was confined to disadvantaged members of the designated minority groups.

The university’s assumption that diversity of viewpoints will be achieved by selecting students based on their race amounts to impermissible stereotyping, and race-neutral alternatives for achieving diversity have not been meaningfully considered. Intellectual diversity can be obtained through looking for it directly, rather than through using race as a proxy. Besides, an interest in diversity does not justify discriminating on the basis of race. The Bakke decision did not say that an interest in diversity was a compelling justification for racial preferences. Only a single member of the court, Justice Powell, endorsed it as such. His rationale, derived from principles of “academic freedom,” finds no support in later Supreme Court decisions.

It is settled law that the government can made distinctions based on race and ethnicity only when necessary to achieve a compelling interest, and then only through narrowly-tailored means. But there is no principled, limited, workable way that race and ethnicity can be used to achieve an interest in diversity consistent with constitutional standards.

For Bollinger and the University of Michigan

John Payton; Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, Washington, DC.

In the 25 years since this Court’s Bakke decision, virtually all of this nation’s colleges and universities have embraced the educational value of a broadly diverse student body and have relied on Bakke in designing admissions policies designed to obtain it. These schools have sought and enrolled students of different cultural, racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and geographic backgrounds, who bring with them a variety of interests, talents, beliefs, and experiences. The resulting diversity allows colleges and universities to provide their students with a better education.

Our country is becoming increasingly diverse and more aware of its diversity, but we nevertheless remain a society largely separated by race and ethnicity. It is all too common for students to come to college campuses from high schools where they have had little opportunity to interact with students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Bringing together students with different life experiences creates opportunities for rich and vivid exchanges, as students reflect on those experiences in a new context and share their own interpretations of them. By assembling a diverse student body, universities also encourage students to identify and confront unspoken and, indeed, often unconscious stereotypes. Seeing similarities and differences across dividing lines — whether real or perceived, and whether drawn according to race, sex, geography, or belief — is a vital part of undergraduate education. But without the presence of meaningful numbers of minority students on campus, these interactions, and the educational benefits they foster, cannot take place. The university’s extensive outreach and recruiting efforts do not, by themselves, lead to the enrollment of meaningful numbers of minority students. The majority of the justices in deciding Bakke agreed that a university is not required to adopt race-blind admissions policies and expressly cited the admissions policy of Harvard — which was designed to attain diversity — as an example of a constitutional admissions program that is nonetheless race conscious. Hundreds of public and private colleges and universities have relied on Bakke. Undermining this reliance would have serious consequences for our national educational culture, leading, among other things, to a near-total absence of minority students in our nation’s selective colleges and universities.

The United States Justice Department argues, in its friend of court brief, that race-neutral means are available for achieving a diversity student body. It offers only one: the “percentage plans” now in place in Texas, California, and Florida. While these plans may be facially race-neutral, their purpose and intended effect is to achieve some measure of racial diversity. In any event, whatever the value of those plans in those states, they simply will not work for the University of Michigan because of demographic constraints. Moreover, any percentage plan would require the University to discontinue its consideration of a much wider and more nuanced range of academic factors in making admissions decisions and to abandon its mission of enrolling a broadly diverse student body.

Friend of court briefs:

The two University of Michigan cases have attracted over 100 amicus briefs, a record number. Among the notable ones:

For Gratz and Hamacher

The U.S. Justice Department

The university’s admissions practice, awarding a fixed number of points to minority applicants and of giving special attention to their applications, is the functional equivalent of a quota system. The program is unconstitutional as long as race-neutral means are available for seeking diversity, such as the programs used in Texas, Florida and California under which the top 10 percent of all high school graduates are offered admission. “This court has repeatedly emphasized that race-based measures are permissible only to the extent that the asserted interest may not be achieved ‘without classifying individuals on the basis of race,’ ” the government says.

For Michigan University

Dozens of Fortune 500 companies file

The students of today are this country’s corporate and community leaders of the next half-century. For these students to realize their potential as leaders, it is essential that they be educated in an environment where they are exposed to diverse people, ideas, perspectives, and interactions. Today’s global marketplace and the increasing diversity in the American population demand the cross-cultural experience and understanding gained from such an education,” they argue.

A group of former military officers and civilian leaders of the Defense Department

“A highly qualified, racially diverse officer corps educated and trained to command our nation’s racially diverse enlisted ranks is essential to the military’s ability to fulfill its principal mission to provide national security. The primary sources for the nation’s officer corps are the service academies and the ROTC, the latter comprised of students already admitted to participating colleges and universities. At present, the military cannot achieve an officer corps that is both highly qualified and racially diverse unless the service academies and the ROTC use limited race-conscious recruiting and admissions policies,” they say.

Pete Williams is the Supreme Court Correspondent for NBC News.

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