International Human Rights Law Perspective on Grutter and Gratz

By Weissbrodt, David | Constitutional Commentary, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

International Human Rights Law Perspective on Grutter and Gratz


Weissbrodt, David, Constitutional Commentary


There is an international human rights law aspect to Grutter v. Bollinger (1) and Gratz v. Bollinger (2) that might be missed by many lawyers and scholars who rarely consider any legal domain beyond the limits of the U.S. Constitution. Indeed, Grutter and Gratz reflect a trend in Supreme Court opinions to use international human rights sources in interpreting the Constitution.

Justice Ginsburg's concurring opinion in Grutter relies upon international human rights law in noting that

   [t]he Court's observation that race-conscious programs must
   have a logical end point, accords with the international
   understanding ... of affirmative action. The International
   Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial
   Discrimination, ratified by the United States in 1994 ...
   instructs [that affirmative action measures] "shall in no
   case entail as a consequence the maintenance of unequal or
   separate rights for different racial groups after the objectives
   for which they were taken have been achieved." (3)

In Grutter Justice Ginsburg also cited Article 4(1) of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, (4) which provides for affirmative action, but limits such special measures to the length of time required to achieve the goal of de facto equality. Furthermore, in her dissenting opinion in Gratz, Justice Ginsburg referred to her use of international law in Grutter. In distinguishing between invidious and remedial discrimination, she states that "[c]ontemporary human rights documents draw just this line; they distinguish between policies of oppression and measures designed to accelerate de facto equality." (5)

In supporting affirmative action, Justice Ginsburg appropriately relied upon the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Race Convention), (6) which has been ratified by the United States and 168 other nations, that is, over three quarters of the countries in the world. By ratifying the Race Convention the United States has committed itself under Article 5 "to prohibit and to eliminate racial discrimination in all its forms" (7) and to provide under Article 2 for affirmative action so long as such special measures are required. (8) The Race Convention authorized the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (Race Committee) to review compliance with the treaty's provisions. The Clinton Administration submitted (9) and the Bush Administration presented (10) the first U.S. report to Race Committee in which the U.S. identified several federal statutes and regulations that provide for affirmative action. In its concluding observations on the U.S. report the Race Committee "emphasize[d] that the adoption of special measures by States parties, when the circumstances so warrant, such as in the case of persistent disparities, is an obligation stemming from article 2, paragraph 2 of the Convention." (11)

Justice Ginsburg could also have referred to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, (12) by which the U.S. and 150 other nations have pledged to "prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race...." (13) The Covenant established the Human Rights Committee, which reviewed the first U.S. report and concluded, inter alia:

   The Committee emphasizes the need for the Government to
   increase its efforts to prevent and eliminate persisting
   discriminatory attitudes and prejudices against persons belonging
   to minority groups and women including, where appropriate,
   through the adoption of affirmative action. State
   legislation which is not yet in full compliance with the
   nondiscrimination articles of the Covenant should be brought
   systematically into line with them as soon as possible. (14)

Lest one gets the impression that Justice Ginsburg is the only justice of the Supreme Court that is aware of these international legal sources, one should also refer to the learning process reflected by the Court's experience in regard to discrimination against homosexuals. …

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