In a 6-2 decision today in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action (companion case Schuette v. Cantrell), the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeal’s ruling and upheld a Michigan voter initiative that bans the practice of race-conscious admissions to the state’s public universities.
“Today’s decision reiterated the constitutionality of race-conscious admissions at colleges and universities across the nation. But it also sanctioned two tiers of access in our nation’s colleges and universities: one for the children of donors, alumni, and other interest groups, and another for racial and ethnic minorities. Donors and alumni can still lobby universities to include their children, but people who support racial and ethnic diversity in schools no longer have that opportunity,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference. “Access to higher education is the foundation of economic mobility, particularly for low-income and minority students. Access to the middle class should not be put to a majority vote, and today’s decision has made it harder for minority students across the country to pursue the American Dream.”
The case followed Michigan’s passage in 2006 of Proposal 2, a ballot initiative that amended the state constitution to prohibit the consideration of race, gender, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the areas of public employment, public education, and public contracting. The Court’s decision is about whether or not such a ballot initiative is constitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. In Schuette, their answer is yes.
Diversity in Michigan minority enrollment has decreased since that 2006 initiative, creating a less diverse learning environment and impacting the education experience of all students. Kevin Gaines, a professor of history and African-American Studies at the University of Michigan and a plaintiff in the case, said “the lack of diversity has had a chilling effect on the quality of discourse in the classroom.” He added, “a university should be a place where a variety of viewpoints are expressed, shared and debated. Proposal 2 has hindered, not helped, students from receiving the robust education they deserve.”
According to Kary L. Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, today’s ruling will lead to the loss of even more minority students and faculty.
“In order to have their voices heard, students of color must now take on the arduous task of overturning the constitutional amendment. This is the definition of a separate and unequal system that will result in Michigan continuing to lose students and faculty of color to states that have the flexibility to consider the whole person before them,” Moss said.
Significantly, this case did not challenge the actual value of race-conscious policies.
“While this decision is a setback for diversity efforts in Michigan, it is important to note that this case did not address the merits of race-conscious admissions, which have been previously upheld by the court, as the justices emphasized in today’s ruling,” said Leticia Smith-Evans, interim director of the Education Group at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, in a statement following the Court’s ruling.
In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor – who was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – expressed concern with the ruling and underscored the case’s focus on the political process and the necessity to protect all voters involved in that process.
“Contrary to today’s decision, protecting the right to meaningful participation in the political process must mean more than simply removing barriers to participation. It must mean vigilantly policing the political process to ensure that the majority does not use other methods to prevent minority groups from partaking in that process on equal footing,” Sotomayor said. “I firmly believe that our role as judges includes policing the process of self-government and stepping in when necessary to secure the constitutional guarantee of equal protection.”