Magazine article The Crisis

Questions: John Payton on Affirmative Action

Magazine article The Crisis

Questions: John Payton on Affirmative Action

Article excerpt

On June 23, the U.S. Supreme Court issued landmark rulings in the two University of Michigan affirmative action cases. The court ruled 5 to 4 in Grutter v. Bollinger to uphold the admissions process at UM's law school. The program attempts enroll a "critical mass" of Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans by closely considering each applicant individually. But in Gratz v. Bollinger, the court ruled 6 to 3 that Michigan's undergraduate admissions program, which automatically gives members of "under-represented" racial minority groups an extra 20 points on a 150-point scale, was unconstitutional. The rulings represent a victory for proponents of affirmative action. In writing the majority opinion in the Grutter case, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor stated that "student body diversity is a compelling state interest that can justify using race in university admissions." She added that race-conscious admissions should be limited in time and that "we expect that 25 years from now the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary." Attorney John Payton argued the Gratz case, considered the more challenging of the two. A partner at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, a Washington, D.C., law firm, Payton has represented Michigan for the past six years, ushering the university through the trial and appeals courts up to the high court.

How do you view the outcome of the Supreme Court rulings?

It's a sensational victory on the main point: Is it lawful to take race into account in putting together a diverse student body. The larger question is answered identically in the two cases. The fact that the admissions program in the undergraduate case had problems that the court found to be unconstitutional - we would rather to have won on that, too, but I'm quite confident it will be possible to come up with a fix in the undergraduate process that will pass muster. …

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