High court upholds state's ban on college-admissions affirmative action
4/22/2014, 10:45 a.m.
WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld a Michigan law banning the use of racial criteria in college admissions, a key decision in an unfolding legal and political battle nationally over affirmative action.
The justices found 6-2 that a lower court did not have the authority to set aside the measure approved in a 2006 referendum supported by 58% of voters.
It bars publicly funded colleges from granting "preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin."
Justice Sonia Sotomayor reacted sharply in disagreeing with the decision.
"For members of historically marginalized groups, which rely on the federal courts to protect their constitutional rights, the decision can hardly bolster hope for a vision of democracy that preserves for all the right to participate meaningfully and equally in self-government," Sotomayor wrote.
But three justices in the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito. concluded that the lower court did not have the authority to set aside the law.
"This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved. It is about who may resolve it," Kennedy wrote.
"Michigan voters used the initiative system to bypass public officials who were deemed not responsive to the concerns of a majority of the voters with respect to a policy of granting race-based preferences that raises difficult and delicate issues," he added.
Justices Antonin Scalia, Stephen Breyer and Clarence Thomas voted in the majority as part of concurring opinions.
Sotomayor and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, and Justice Elena Kagan took no part in the case.
The court's first Latina justice, Sotomayor, took the unusual step of reading part of her powerful dissent from the bench, taking more than 15 minutes to express her concern about the ruling's impact.
"This refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters is regrettable. The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination," she said.
"As members of the judiciary tasked with intervening to carry out the guarantee of equal protection, we ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society," she added.
The latest step
The decision was the latest step in a legal and political battle over whether state colleges can use race and gender as a factor in choosing what students to admit.
The debate in recent years has centered around whether and when affirmative action programs -- while constitutionally permissible now -- would eventually have to be phased out as the goal of obtaining diversity is met.
Last year, the court affirmed the use of race at the University of Texas, but made it harder for institutions to justify such policies to achieve diversity.
In that dispute, a white student said the college's existing affirmative action policy violated her "equal protection" rights. Civil rights supporters of such programs claim Michigan's ban also has the same effect, and a federal appeals court agreed.