Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Applauds Sixth Circuit Decision Upholding University Affirmative Action

Media 05.22,02

May 14, 2002

Julie Fernandes

Washington, D.C. – Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued an important decision upholding the use of race as a factor in admissions to the University of Michigan Law School. This opinion overturned the lower court’s decision that the admissions policy used by the law school impermissibly discriminated against White applicants. In upholding the Michigan admissions scheme, the majority noted that they were “satisfied that the law school’s admissions policy sets appropriate limits on the competitive consideration of race and ethnicity.”

“Today’s decision is a landmark in the continuing struggle for real equality of opportunity in university education systems,” said Wade Henderson, Executive Director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR). “The Court clearly understood and affirmed that diversity is a compelling interest that permits the narrowly tailored use of race as a factor in admissions.”

In 1978, the Supreme Court, in University of California v. Bakke, established that campus diversity can be a compelling governmental interest that permits the use of race as a factor in a narrowly tailored university admissions program. However, several recent decisions by lower federal courts – notably the 5th Circuit’s 1996 decision in Hopwood v. University of Texas Law School — have encouraged some to question the continued validity of the Bakke decision.

“We are pleased that the 6th Circuit has reaffirmed the principle that the Supreme Court established more than twenty years ago in Bakke,” said Nancy Zirkin, Director of Public Policy & Government Relations at the American Association of University Women and Co-Chair of the LCCR task force on affirmative action. “Affirmative action remains a useful tool to help achieve equality of opportunity and to enrich the educational experience at higher educational institutions across the country.”

This case, Grutter v. Bollinger, is one of two legal challenges to the university’s affirmative action policies. The companion case, challenging the university’s college admissions program, Gratz v. Bollinger, is still pending before the 6th Circuit. Because lower federal courts across the country have issued divergent opinions on the issue of the use of race in higher education admissions, it is likely that the Supreme Court will take up the issue soon.

“Diversity remains an important goal for universities across the country,” said Wade Henderson. “The Sixth Circuit, by affirming the constitutionality of the narrowly tailored used of race to promote educational diversity, has taken a definitive step in the right direction.”