Michigan's Day in Court: In Arguments over Affirmative Action in Admissions, the Justices Seemed to Favor a Less Than Drastic Overhaul of the Law
Rosenberg, Debra, Newsweek
Byline: Debra Rosenberg
When the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear two cases involving admissions at the University of Michigan, the legal showdown was billed as the most important test of affirmative action in 25 years. Businesses, universities--even the White House--deluged the court with more than 100 briefs. Some sided with the plaintiffs, three white students who said they were denied admission to Michigan's undergrad program and law school because of their race. But most backed the university, which argued it could use race as a factor in admissions because the state has a "compelling interest" in diversity. By the time oral arguments began last week, thousands of affirmative-action supporters swarmed the sidewalks outside the courtroom. And for only the second time ever (Bush v. Gore was the first), the media-shy court released immediate audiotapes of the arguments.
Despite all the drama, the final decision--due by early summer--may be more likely to tinker with the law than to upend it. In the 1978 Bakke case, a fractured court ruled that quotas and two-track admissions systems were unconstitutional, but upheld the vague notion of using race as one of many "plus" factors in admissions. The Michigan plaintiffs hoped for a new decision that would bar all use of race. And nearly everyone hoped the court would clarify the murky standard set by Bakke. But last week's arguments revealed another divided court with Sandra Day O'Connor as the swing vote. Court watchers think Michigan's programs could be vulnerable, but they doubt the splintered court will ban racial preferences altogether.
Opponents of affirmative action thought they'd found a solid test case in Michigan. Its undergrad program uses a point system to sort through 24,000 applications a year. African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans get 20 extra points out of a possible 150--as do athletes and the economically disadvantaged. The law school doesn't use points, but aims for a "critical mass" of minority students. …