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Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court

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The Court Revisits Bakke 25 Years Later: The Michigan Affirmative Action Cases

Directions
  1. Read the synopsis of Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger.
  2. Complete the first part of the graphic organizer.
  3. With your class, review the decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. Based on that information, make a prediction about the Court's decision in Gratz and Grutter. How did you arrive at that prediction? Share your prediction and your rationale with a partner.
  4. Read the outcome in The Two Cases Decided and record that information on the graphic organizer.

Synopses: Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger

Gratz v. Bollinger

Jennifer Gratz, a white resident of Michigan, applied to the University of Michigan as a high school senior in 1995. Her standardized test score (25) on the ACT placed her in the top quarter of applicants, and she had a GPA of 3.8. In addition, Gratz participated in student council and various other extra-curricular activities. Nevertheless, the university denied Gratz admission. The University of Michigan’s admissions guidelines in effect in 1995 called for the acceptance of all underrepresented minority applicants with academic credentials similar to Gratz’s. Both parties agree that Gratz would have been admitted to the university had she been a minority applicant.

From 1995 through 1997 the university admissions officers used guideline tables or grids that reflected a combination of the applicant’s adjusted high school GPA and ACT or SAT score. To promote diversity, the university utilized different grids and admissions criteria for applicants who were members of preferred minority groups as compared to other candidates. Michigan also set aside a prescribed number of seats in the entering class for minorities in order to meet its numerical target.

In 1998, the university dropped its admissions grid system and replaced it with a 150-point “selection index.” Admissions officers assign applicants points based on various factors, including test scores, “legacy” status, geographic origin, athletic ability, socioeconomic level, and race/ethnicity. The more points an applicant accumulates, the higher the chance of admission. Applicants from "underrepresented" racial and ethnic groups (African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans) are assigned 20 points. Scholarship athletes and students who are economically disadvantaged also receive an automatic 20-point bonus. Geographic origin could earn 6 points, the child of an alumnus 4 points, and an “outstanding” admissions essay 3 points.

Gratz, and another unsuccessful white applicant, Patrick Hamacher, brought suit challenging the legality of the University of Michigan’s admission’s policy. The federal district court ruled that the school’s undergraduate admissions policy in place before 1999, which maintained a set-aside for minorities, violated the Fourteenth Amendment, but the court upheld the current system, which does not use quotas and utilizes race as a “plus.”

Grutter v. Bollinger

In 1997, Barbara Grutter, a resident of Michigan, applied for admission to the University of Michigan law school. Grutter, who is white, had a 3.8 undergraduate GPA and scored 161 on the LSAT. She was denied admission and subsequently filed suit, claiming that her rights to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment had been violated.

At the time, the law school had an admissions policy that used race as a factor in the admissions process. In selecting students, the law school considered the applicant's academic ability, including undergraduate GPA, LSAT scores, the applicant's personal statement, and letters of recommendation. The school also considered factors such as the applicant's experience, the quality of the undergraduate institution he/she had attended, and the degree to which the applicant would contribute to law school life and the diversity of the community. The admissions policy did not define the types of diversity that would receive special consideration, but did make reference to the inclusion of African-American, Hispanic, and Native-American students, who might otherwise be under-represented.

The school thought this policy complied with Bakke, on the grounds that it served a "compelling interest in achieving diversity among its student body." The District Court ruled that the goal of achieving a diverse student body was not a compelling one. In reversing this decision, the Court of Appeals said that Justice Powell's opinion in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, constituted a binding precedent establishing diversity as a compelling governmental interest sufficient under strict scrutiny review to justify the use of racial preferences in admissions. Furthermore, the attempt to enroll a "critical mass" of minorities was not comparable to a quota system.

Graphic Organizer

Gratz v. Bollinger

Grutter v. Bollinger

Basic Facts about the applicant

Level (undergraduate or graduate)

Summary of Selection Process

Constitutional Question

Your prediction: is it Constitutional?

Actual Outcome

The Two Cases Decided

Because the issues of diversity and affirmative action in higher education are so important and because federal courts of appeal had issued conflicting decisions, the Supreme Court granted certiorari and agreed to hear both Michigan cases in 2003. In analyzing both cases, a majority of the justices agreed that racial discrimination was involved and that the Court had to apply strict judicial scrutiny. This meant that the state had to show a compelling state interest in support of the use of race and that race could only be used to further that interest if it did not unduly burden disfavored groups. For example, a race-conscious admission program cannot use a quota system which sets aside a certain number of places in the entering class for members of selected minority groups, although race or ethnicity could be considered a "plus" in a particular applicant's file.

A majority of the justices agreed that student body diversity is a compelling state interest that can justify using race in university admissions. In a 5-to-4 opinion, the Court found that Michigan's law school admission policy did not violate Barbara Grutter's rights. Having a critical mass (essential number) of students from underrepresented groups can enrich classroom discussion, produce cross-racial understanding, and break down racial stereotypes.

Rather than emphasizing diversity as justified by past or present discrimination, the Court's opinion in the law school case looked to the future and related diversity to the challenges the nation faces: ".because universities, and in particular, law schools, represent the training ground for a large number of the Nation's leaders, the path to leadership must be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity." The Court also noted that "the Law School engaged in 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."

Four justices dissented in the law school case, believing that the "critical mass" notion was simply a disguise for an illegal quota. To the dissenters, the Constitution's prohibition against racial discrimination protects whites as well as minorities. They also believed there were nondiscriminatory ways to achieve diversity.

In contrast, Michigan's undergraduate admissions policy was found unconstitutional by a vote of 6 to 3. The majority objected to the program's failure to consider applicants on an individual basis as required by the Court's decision in the Bakke case. While the undergraduate admissions program could use race-conscious affirmative action, it had to be in a form that was individualized and not mechanical.

The dissenters in the undergraduate case would have allowed the use of automatic points to achieve diversity because it was an honest, open approach to the role race plays in the admissions process.

< Regents of the University of California v. Bakke