In Schuette case, Supreme Court addresses affirmative action in MI’s state universities

On April 22, the Supreme Court upheld an amendment to Michigan’s constitution prohibiting state universities from considering race as a factor in the admissions process.

In a 6-2 decision, the court held that Michigan’s amendment did not violate the equal protection clause of the Constitution’s Fourteenth amendment. Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the proceedings because of a conflict of interest.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the opinion for the majority, and Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito joined him in full.

“This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved,” Kennedy stated in his opinion. “It is about who may resolve it.”

Several justices also filled concurring opinions. Justice Clarence Thomas joined Justice Antonin Scalia in concurring, and Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a separate concurring opinion.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor filled a dissenting opinion, and she was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“For members of historically marginalized groups which rely on the federal courts to protect their constitutional rights,” Sotomayor wrote, “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.”

Although a majority of Michigan voters approved the amendment as an initiative, the decision to ban race as a factor in admissions remains controversial.

The case is the latest in a series of Supreme Court proceedings that have eroded the use of affirmative action in deciding between applicants.

In 2003’s Gratz v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court decided that while race could be factor in the admissions process for colleges and universities, it could not be a determining factor in the admission of an individual into the institution.

With the Schuette case, however, minority voters in Michigan will have to find a way to defeat the amendment to reverse the ban on affirmative action in the admissions process.

The Supreme Court had the task to determine whether this amendment unfairly inhibited the political process for minority voters.

Randolph-Macon’s Dean of Academic Affairs Dr. Lauren Bell told The Yellow Jacket that in the Schuette case, the three justices in the majority opinion believed the Michigan amendment was not a violation of Michigan’s political process.

“For the court, they take this up under a political process doctrine,” Bell said.

“They say, is this somehow violating the regular political process? And ultimately what the group of three justices concludes is that it doesn’t violate the regular political process. The board of regents are a public entity and a public entity is no more or less subject to a ballot initiative than anybody else.”

Bell noted those in Michigan favorable to affirmative action contest the idea that the affirmative action amendment does not create an undue burden within the political process.

“What the opponents claim is: of course it violates the regular political process, because right now if as a group children of wealthy alumni want to petition as a group to have legacy status counted at a particular institution, all they have to do is convince the board of regents,” Bell said.

“But if a group of racial or ethnic minorities want to have race considered as part of the admissions process, now they have to change the constitution in the state. It creates a burden for that group of people.”

According to the legal argument the majority made in the Schuette case, there was no violation of the Fourteenth amendment.

“The Fourteenth amendment says that a state cannot discriminate on the basis of race. Well the amendment that was passed through the citizens’ initiative says you cannot use race. So, while the effect of that might be to marginalize racial or ethnic minorities, as far as the language goes there’s not a conflict with the Fourteenth amendment.”

Bell told The Yellow Jacket that although in matters like the Schuette case the Supreme Court’s decision can be divisive, the Court is simply fulfilling its constitutional role by making a strictly legal argument.

“[The Court’s] job is not to aggregate the public interest and come up with what people will be happiest with,” Bell said.

“Their job is to say what’s legal and what’s okay, and they’ve done that in this case. If we as a society want to see a more fully realized type of equality, then the place to do that is through society or through Congress. The courts can help that along, but they can only help that along when there’s a legal wrong that they can fix.”

-Henry Ashton ’15, Senior Politics/Opinions Editor

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