Affirmative Action Ban Is Upheld ; Supreme Court Backs Michigan Policy against Use of Race in Admissions

Article excerpt

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in favor of a voter initiative to ban racial preferences in admissions to Michigan's public universities.

In a fractured decision that revealed deep divisions over what role the judiciary should play in protecting racial and ethnic minorities, the United States Supreme Court has upheld a Michigan constitutional amendment that bans affirmative action in admissions to the state's public universities.

The 6-to-2 ruling on Tuesday effectively endorsed similar measures in seven other states. It may also encourage more states to enact measures banning the use of race in admissions or to consider race-neutral alternatives to ensure diversity.

States that forbid affirmative action in higher education, like Florida and California, as well as Michigan, have seen a significant drop in the enrollment of black and Hispanic students in their most selective colleges and universities.

In five separate opinions spanning more than 100 pages, the justices set out starkly conflicting views. Those in the majority, with varying degrees of vehemence, said that policies affecting minorities that do not involve intentional discrimination should be decided at the ballot box rather than in the courtroom.

But Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in the longest, most passionate and most significant dissent of her career, said the Constitution required special vigilance in light of the history of slavery, segregation laws and "recent examples of discriminatory changes to state voting laws."

Her opinion, longer than the four other opinions combined, appeared to reflect her own experiences with affirmative action at Princeton and Yale Law School. "I had been admitted to the Ivy League through a special door," she wrote in her best-selling memoir, "My Beloved World." For years, she wrote, "I lived the day- to-day reality of affirmative action."

In contrast to Justice Sotomayor's outraged dissent, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's controlling opinion for three justices took pains to say that the decision was a modest one. "This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved," he wrote, in an opinion joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. "It is about who may resolve it. There is no authority in the Constitution of the United States or in this court's precedents for the judiciary to set aside Michigan laws that commit this policy determination to the voters."

His announcement of the decision from the bench was businesslike. Signaling deep displeasure, Justice Sotomayor summarized her dissent from the bench, an unusual move that happens perhaps three times a term. …