Appeals Court Rules Michigan’s Ban on Equal Opportunity Unconstitutional

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit today in an 8-to-7 ruling found that parts of Michigan’s law banning equal opportunity programs at public colleges and universities are unconstitutional.

The court agreed with proponents that the law, known as Proposal 2, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment by presenting an extraordinary burden to minority students. That burden “undermines the Equal Protection Clause’s guarantee that all citizens ought to have equal access to the tools of political change,” said Judge R. Guy Cole Jr., writing for the majority. “Ensuring a fair political process is nowhere more important than in education.”

The court did not comment on part of the law that deals with government hiring.

“Today’s landmark decision reaffirms the cornerstone principle of our democracy—that the political process must be open to all Americans,” said Mark Rosenbaum, American Civil Liberties Union attorney and University of Michigan professor who argued the case. “It restores the argument that race is not to be disadvantaged when universities seek to enroll a diverse student body. Somewhere Lincoln and Dr. King are smiling.”

Earlier this year, attorneys representing a wide range of groups including students, faculty and prospective applicants asked the Sixth Circuit to uphold a July 2011 ruling that struck down Michigan’s ban on equal opportunity programs in public higher education, employment, and contracting. However, the state of Michigan appealed the ruling and requested a hearing of all the judges who serve on the Sixth Circuit.

In 2006, Michigan passed Proposal 2, a ballot initiative that amended the state constitution to ban some equal opportunity programs. Following its passage, a coalition of civil rights organizations that includes the ACLU of Michigan, the Detroit Branch of the NAACP, ACLU Foundation of Southern California, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a federal lawsuit challenging its constitutionality.

The leading proponent of these anti-equal opportunity ballot initiatives is Ward Connerly, a California businessman and former University of California regent, who has shopped similar initiatives in states around the country for over a decade. Connerly-sponsored initiatives have passed in four other states – California (1996), Washington (1998), Nebraska (2008), Arizona (2010), and Oklahoma (2012). Colorado is the only state where, in 2008, voters rejected a Connerly anti-equal opportunity measure.