October 23, 2012

Cases of Interest to the School Community 2002–2003 Term

Affirmative Action

Gratz v. Bollinger, No. 02-516 ;
Grutter v. Bollinger, No. 02-241

One of this term's two affirmative action cases involved a challenge to the admissions program at the University of Michigan's law school; the other asked the Court to strike the program at the university's undergraduate school. Because courts must use "strict scrutiny" when reviewing officials' use of race, it was clear at the outset that the affirmative action policies at both schools would have to be struck down unless they could be shown to consist of "narrowly tailored measures" that furthered "compelling" governmental interests.

Barbara Grutter, the plaintiff in the law school case, Grutter v. Bollinger et al., is a white Michigan resident who was denied admission to the school despite having earned an outstanding grade point average and a high score on the Law School Admission Test. She contended that the school had no "compelling interest" to justify its use of race in making admissions decisions.

Writing for a 5-4 majority, however, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor endorsed Justice Powell's view (in Regents of Univ. of Cal. v. Bakke, 438 U. S. 265 (1978)) that student body diversity is in fact "a compelling state interest that can justify the use of race in university admissions." Further, she reasoned, the law school's use of race was "narrowly tailored" to further that compelling interest in diversity. The admissions program did not rely on quotas, but instead followed Justice Powell's recommendation that race only be used as a "plus" factor in a program that remained flexible enough to ensure that each applicant was "evaluated as an individual" and not in a way that made an applicant's race or ethnicity "the defining feature" of his or her application.

The white petitioners in Gratz et al. v. Bollinger et al., on the other hand, persuaded six justices that the university's undergraduate program, which automatically distributed 20 points, or one-fifth of the points needed to guarantee admission, to every single "underrepresented minority" applicant, was not narrowly tailored to achieve educational diversity. Chief Justice Rehnquist's opinion for the Court nevertheless rejected the argument that diversity can never constitute a compelling state interest and indicated that the Court would uphold a reconfigured program that followed Justice Powell's Bakke guidelines.

Together, the two Michigan affirmative action cases sparked a firestorm of law and policy arguments from both the parties and their intellectual and political allies. Fortunately, the University of Michigan collected nearly all of these arguments and made them available on the Web.

Browse the University of Michigan's near-comprehensive collection of all the legal filings associated with the law school case.

Browse the University of Michigan's near-comprehensive collection of all the legal filings associated with the undergraduate case.

Read the University of Michigan's collection of amicus briefs filed in both cases.

Read the Supreme Court's opinion in Gratz v. Bollinger .

Read the Supreme Court's opinion in Grutter v. Bolinger .

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