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High court upholds state's ban on college-admissions affirmative action

By Bill Mears CNN | 4/22/2014, 10:45 a.m.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that while state universities could use race as a factor in choosing which students to admit, they could not make race the determining factor in deciding whether applicants are accepted.

Michigan has said minority enrollment at its flagship university, the University of Michigan, has not gone down since the measure was passed.

Civil rights groups dispute those figures and say other states have seen fewer African-American and Hispanic students attending highly competitive schools, especially in graduate level fields like law, medicine, and science.

"Students deserve a robust education where a variety of viewpoints are shared and debated," said Professor Kevin Gaines of the University of Michigan, one of the original plaintiffs. "Proposal 2 has meant less diversity in our universities, which has had a chilling effect on the quality of discourse in the classroom. Unfortunately, that will continue, at least for the time being, in Michigan."

But supporters of Michigan's policies applauded the high court's conclusions.

"The court emphasized the value of allowing hotly contested policy decisions to be debated in the states rather than encouraging one-size-fits-all orders from Washington," said Carrie Severino, chief counsel for Judicial Crisis Network.

"In preserving for the states and the people the right to pursue race-neutral policies with respect to hiring and higher education, the court reaffirmed the blessings of liberty and equality under law for another generation," Severino said.

Controversial efforts

The Michigan ban also prohibits the state from considering race and gender in public hiring and public contracting decisions. But the current high court case dealt only with the college admissions portion.

Efforts over decades to create a diverse classroom have been controversial.

The Brown vs. Board of Education high court ruling in 1954 ended segregation of public schools, but sparked nationwide protests and disobedience by states that initially refused to integrate.

In the 1978 Bakke case, the justices ruled universities have a compelling state interest in promoting diversity, and that allows for the use of affirmative action. That issue involved a discrimination claim by a white man denied admission to medical school.

The referendum issue has been around at least since 1996, when California voters endorsed Proposition 209, which bans use of race, sex, or ethnic background by state agencies in areas of education, and government hiring and contracts.

Six other states now have similar laws, and others may follow suit.

"With today's opinion, the court has placed responsibility for affirmative action squarely in the hands of the states. State universities can choose to adopt affirmative action admissions programs, and state voters can choose to discontinue them," said Jennifer Mason McAward, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame.

"The fact that this relatively simple judgment generated five separate opinions by the justices, however, points to a much more nuanced and heated debate among the justices regarding the permissibility and wisdom of racial preferences in general," McAward said.

Roberts has made the issue a key part of the court's docket in recent years and it could serve as a major legacy of the current conservative majority.

The case is Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action (12-682).

CNN's Jason Hanna contributed to this report.

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