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Summary of Supreme Court Decisions in Admissions Cases

U.S. Supreme Court — June 23, 2003

by Jonathan Alger,
University of Michigan Assistant General Counsel

Summary

On June 23, 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Grutter v. Bollinger et al. that diversity is a compelling interest in higher education, and that race is one of a number of factors that can be taken into account to achieve the educational benefits of a diverse student body. The Court found that the individualized, whole-file review used in the University of Michigan Law School’s admissions process is narrowly tailored to achieve the educational benefits of diversity. The Court also held that the Law School’s goal of attaining a critical mass of underrepresented minority students does not transform its program into a quota. In Gratz et al. v. Bollinger et al., the Court held that while race is one of a number of factors that can be considered in undergraduate admissions, the automatic distribution of twenty (20) points to students from underrepresented minority groups is not narrowly tailored.

Majority Opinion (Grutter v. Bollinger et al.)

In an opinion by Justice O’Connor (joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer), the Court explicitly adopted Justice Powell’s view from Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), finding that “student body diversity is a compelling state interest that can justify the use of race in university admissions.” It noted that public and private universities across the nation have modeled their admissions programs on the views articulated by Justice Powell in Bakke, and it reiterated that race “’is only one element in a range of factors a university properly may consider in attaining the goal of a heterogeneous student body.’”

The Court stated that “[a]lthough all government uses of race are subject to strict scrutiny, not all are invalidated by it,” and that “context matters” when reviewing programs in which race is taken into account. The Court rejected the assertion that “the only governmental use of race that can survive strict scrutiny is remedying past discrimination.” It recognized that “universities occupy a special niche in our constitutional tradition,” and deferred to the University of Michigan Law School’s good faith educational judgment that diversity is essential to its institutional mission.

The Court found that the educational benefits of diversity “are not theoretical but real,” and had been substantiated by the University and its amici in supporting briefs. Those benefits include "cross-racial understanding” and the breaking down of racial stereotypes. The Court cited social science research showing that “student body diversity promotes learning outcomes, … better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce and society, and better prepares them as professionals.” It acknowledged that “major American businesses have made clear that the skills needed in today’s increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints,” and that high-ranking former military leaders have asserted that “a highly qualified, racially diverse officer corps” is essential to national security. Finally, the Court noted that diversity is particularly important in the law school context because law schools "represent the training ground for a large number of our Nation's leaders." The Court concluded that “[e]ffective participation by members of all racial and ethnic groups in the civic life of our Nation is essential if the dream of one Nation, indivisible, is to be realized.”

The Court next found that the Law School's admissions program is narrowly tailored to achieve its compelling interest. The Court held that universities may consider race or ethnicity as a “plus” factor in the context of individualized review of each applicant, and that admissions programs must be “’flexible enough to consider all pertinent elements of diversity in light of the particular qualifications of each applicant.’” Institutions may not, however, “establish quotas for members of certain racial groups or put members of those groups on separate admissions tracks.” The Law School policy meets all of these requirements—it is “a highly individualized, holistic review of each applicant’s file, giving serious consideration to all the ways an applicant might contribute to a diverse educational environment.” The Court defined a quota as a “program in which a certain number or proportion of opportunities are ‘reserved exclusively for certain minority groups,” and held that “[t]he Law School’s goal of attaining a critical mass of underrepresented minority students does not transform its program into a quota.” Citing Bakke, the Court stated that “’some attention to numbers,’ without more, does not transform a flexible admissions system into a rigid quota.”

The Court went on to hold that “[n]arrow tailoring does not require exhaustion of every conceivable race-neutral alternative,” and that a university need not choose between commitments to excellence and to a diverse student body. Institutions must give “serious, good faith consideration” to workable race-neutral alternatives to achieve these objectives, but the Court indicated that the Law School had adequately done so. The Court noted that percentage plans that guarantee admission to all students above a certain class-rank threshold in every high school in a state—the alternative suggested in the federal government’s brief—may not work for graduate and professional schools, and may preclude the individualized review of applicants necessary to achieve diversity along all the qualities valued by the university.

The Court held that the Law School flexible admissions program does not unduly harm members of any racial group, because all applicants have the opportunity to demonstrate how they would contribute to the diversity of the entering class.

Finally, the Court held that “race-conscious admissions policies must be limited in time,” and that universities should consider sunset provisions and periodic reviews for such programs. It concluded with an expectation that, 25 years from now, such programs will no longer be necessary.

Majority Opinion (Gratz et al. v. Bollinger et al.)

In an opinion by Chief Justice Rehnquist (joined by Justices O’Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas), the Court reiterated its holding from the Grutter decision that diversity is a compelling state interest that can justify the consideration of race as a plus factor in university admissions. It found, however, that the automatic distribution of twenty (20) points to students from underrepresented minority groups is not narrowly tailored to achieve this purpose.

The Court emphasized the importance of individualized review to assess all of the qualities each applicant might contribute to the diversity of the entering class. It ruled that the admissions process of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts did not meet this standard insofar as 20 (out of 150 total possible) points were automatically awarded to all applicants from underrepresented minority groups, without further consideration of their other individual attributes. The Court concluded that this automatic distribution of 20 points has the effect of making race a decisive factor for “virtually every minimally qualified underrepresented minority applicant.” The fact that certain files are flagged for further individualized consideration by a committee was not deemed sufficient to meet the narrow tailoring standard, because such reviews were found to be “the exception and not the rule” and because they occur only after the points are distributed.

Finally, the Court held that “the fact that the implementation of a program capable of providing individualized consideration might present administrative challenges does not render constitutional an otherwise problematic system.” The case was remanded to the federal district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Other Opinions

In addition to the controlling majority opinions, a number of other concurring and dissenting opinions were filed. Justice Kennedy agreed with the rule articulated by Justice Powell in Bakke that race is one of a number of factors that can be taken into account by universities in the admissions process, but disagreed with the application of the rule in the Law School case. Justices Scalia and Thomas were the only members of the Court who explicitly disagreed with the majority’s holding that the educational benefits of a diverse student body constitute a compelling interest.

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