Tag Archives: Equal Protection Clause

Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action: Death By A Thousand Cuts for Race-Based Affirmative Action?

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette will defend Proposal 2, which changed the state constitution to ban affirmative action in public education, before the Supreme Court Tuesday. (Picture via Detroit Free Press)
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette will defend Proposal 2, which changed the state constitution to ban affirmative action in public education, before the Supreme Court Tuesday. (Picture via Detroit Free Press)

Tomorrow afternoon, the Supreme Court will once again tackle the thorny question of affirmative action in higher education, less than four months after bouncing Fisher v. University of Texas back to a lower court for a newly-tightened and more rigorous examination of the constitutionality of Texas’ race-conscious undergraduate admissions process.1 While the central dispute in Fisher involved the limits of one university’s specific plan to use race as a factor amongst others to achieve a diverse student body, the question in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action comes at the issue from a different direction: can a state’s voters change their constitution to ban public universities from considering race in their admissions plans at all?

In 2006, Michigan voters did precisely that by passing Proposal 2, which amended the state’s constitution to prohibit preferential treatment on the basis of race, sex, ethnicity or national origin in its public education system.2 Proposal 2 was written as a direct response to Grutter v. Bollinger, the 2003 Supreme Court decision that reaffirmed the constitutionality of universities considering race as one factor in holistic admissions policies, while simultaneously noting that such plans, if challenged, were still subject to strict scrutiny, the toughest level of judicial review. Under the strict scrutiny standard, a university (in Grutter, the University of Michigan Law School) must do two things: it must show that it has a compelling interest in the challenged admissions scheme, and then show that it has narrowly tailored its admissions process to fit that interest.

In the Grutter opinion, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that the First Amendment right of a university to attain a diverse student body–a principle first laid out in 1978’s Regents of the University of California v. Bakke–sufficed as a compelling interest in the context of higher education. “[U]niversities occupy a special niche in our constitutional tradition,” she asserted, and are therefore entitled to “educational autonomy” that allows them to “make [their] own judgments as to … the selection of [their] student body.” Because of this First Amendment right, the Supreme Court should in the process of applying strict scrutiny accord a great deal of deference to the University of Michigan’s “educational judgment that diversity is essential to its educational mission.” In fact, where diversity is the compelling reason for an affirmative action plan, courts should presume the school has acted “in good faith” in narrowly tailoring the plan to that interest. Using this standard, the Grutter court deemed constitutional the University of Michigan Law School’s admissions plan.

Three years after Grutter, opponents of affirmative action successfully pushed through Proposal 2 in order to stop the state’s universities from implementing such plans. In turn, the day after the amendment’s passage, a number of individuals and interest groups (including the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action) banded together to file suit against Proposal 2 as it pertained to higher education. A federal district court upheld the affirmative action ban, but an en banc Sixth Circuit subsequently overruled that decision, 8-7, in 2012 on the basis that the prohibition violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Whose rights were being violated? Was it the universities’ rights to put together a diverse student body in order to fulfill its educational mission–an academic freedom that, as Bakke and Grutter told us, long has been viewed as a special concern of the First Amendment? Given what Justice O’Connor had written in 2003, one might have assumed so, but the Coalition and its allies had decided to take a different tack. Instead, they–and the en banc Sixth Circuit opinion, in turn–relied on the “political restructuring” doctrine first set out in 1969’s Hunter v. Erickson and later reaffirmed in 1982’s Washington v. Seattle School District No. 1 to find that Proposition 2 had unconstitutionally deprived minorities of equal access to “the tools of political change.”

In Hunter v. Erickson, the citizens of Akron, Ohio overturned a municipal fair housing ordinance and changed the city charter to require a citywide vote on any similar laws in the future. The Supreme Court invalidated the amendment, ruling that “the State may no more disadvantage any particular group by making it more difficult to enact legislation in its behalf than it may dilute any person’s vote or give any group a smaller representation than another of comparable size.” In Washington v. Seattle, the Supreme Court struck down a voter-approved state law that banned the use of mandatory busing in general, non-racial terms, but included so many exceptions that its true effect was to prohibit busing for the racial integration of public schools. Applying Hunter, the Seattle Court found Washington state had placed “unusual burdens” on the ability of racial minorities to enact legislation “specifically designed to overcome the ‘special condition’ of prejudice.”  Because the majority of voters had created an extra obstacle in the political process that specifically targeted a minority group unlikely to win at the ballot box, the judiciary was obligated to step in and “[safeguard] the interests of those groups that are relegated to such a position of political powerlessness as to command extraordinary protection from the majoritarian political process.”

Taken together, Hunter and Seattle created a two-part rule for determining when an enactment has engaged in impermissible political restructuring: (1) the law in question has a racial focus that targets a program that “inures primarily to the benefit of the minority,” and (2) reallocates political power in a way that puts special burdens on the minority group.  Applying this test, the Sixth Circuit found that Michigan’s Proposal 2 disadvantages minorities in this exact manner, by removing the decision of whether to use race consciousness in university admissions from the educational institutions and fixing the ban in the state constitution. Now, a citizen of Michigan who wants a public college or university to consider race as one factor in the admissions process–a practice still constitutional under Supreme Court precedent–cannot merely lobby the university for such a policy, as an individual who desires special preferences for legacies or athletes can do. Rather, he or she must undergo the expensive and time-consuming process of amending the state’s constitution as well.  This showed, the Sixth Circuit concluded, the majority had “not only won, but has rigged the game to reproduce its success indefinitely.”

University of Michigan students at a pro-diversity rally on October 9, 2013. (AP Photo/The Ann Arbor News, Melanie Maxwell)
University of Michigan students at a pro-diversity rally on October 9, 2013. (Picture by AP Photo/The Ann Arbor News, Melanie Maxwell, via Monroe News)

Whether the Supreme Court agrees with the Sixth Circuit opinion will depend on how it distinguishes Proposal 2 from the laws challenged in Hunter and Seattle. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette (rhymes with ‘duty’) argues that the Sixth Circuit misapplied the political restructuring rule, which is only relevant to laws that create political obstacles to equal treatment, not laws that bar preferential treatment as Proposal 2 does. Rather, by “prohibit[ing] the State from classifying individuals by race or gender,” Proposal 2 actually furthers, not subverts, the goals of the Equal Protection Clause. “It is curious to say that a law that bars a state from discriminating on the basis of race or sex violates the Equal Protection Clause by discriminating on the basis of race and sex,” the Schuette brief states, in an unmistakable echo of Chief Justice John Roberts’ most famous line in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, a 2007 case involving affirmative action at the elementary school level: “The only way to stop discriminating on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” In addition, Schuette maintains that Proposal 2 could not have targeted a politically powerless minority, as the amendment bars both preferential treatment for race and for gender. “[T]o the extent [Proposal 2] can be characterized as ‘disadvantaging’ any groups, those groups constitute a majority of Michigan’s population,” the brief states, arguing that it would be much easier than the Sixth Circuit suggests for Proposal 2’s opponents to overturn the amendment.

Given the way that each Justice has voted on affirmative action programs in the past, there is good reason to believe that Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Thomas and Scalia will be sympathetic to Attorney General Schuette’s arguments. Though the Sixth Circuit’s en banc opinion purposely avoided revisiting Grutter and discussing the constitutionality of affirmative action, focusing solely instead on the political restructuring arguments, it is hard to imagine that Roberts, Alito and Scalia’s unease with race-conscious admissions policies will not come out in the oral argument tomorrow. Justices Sotomayor, Ginsburg and Breyer, on the other hand, are likely to be skeptical of Schuette’s position. Since Justice Kagan has recused herself from this case and there are only eight justices voting, a 4-4 split would allow the Sixth Circuit decision invalidating the affirmative action ban to stand–making Justice Anthony Kennedy, once again, the likely decider.

As I explained in a piece on Fisher and affirmative action last year, Justice Kennedy has long harbored conflicting feelings about affirmative action programs. Just last Thursday, Jess Bravin of The Wall Street Journal asked the justice whether the inclusion of women and ethnic minorities on the Court had benefited the institution. Kennedy replied: “Sure, I think it’s helpful that we have different points of view. I’m not sure that rigid categories of gender and ethnic background are always proxies for diversity, but it gives legitimacy to what the court does.” This, in a nutshell, is Kennedy’s continuing attitude toward affirmative action in public education–it’s somewhat good, but it’s also a somewhat lazy way to achieve true diversity. He doesn’t have a definite answer about how exactly schools can work around this contradiction, but he knows that he wants them to try harder. How well Proposal 2’s challengers fare at tomorrow’s oral argument may hinge on their ability to convince Kennedy that these schools should not be barred from even giving it a shot.

So where does all of this lead us? Personally, I find it most helpful to view Fisher and Schuette as parallel cases that hammer away at affirmative action from two different sides. When the 7-1 Fisher decision was first handed down in June, many supporters of affirmative action breathed a sigh of relief, as they had feared a wider-ranging decision ruling racial affirmative action unconstitutional outright. However, with Kennedy’s majority opinion in Fisher ordering the lower court to give “no deference” to the University of Texas’ narrow tailoring on remand, the public university’s First Amendment right to a diverse student body has been all but gutted, making it much harder for schools to defend race-conscious admissions policies. Schuette now presents another possible alternative for states to defeat affirmative action by pre-emptively prohibiting it, thus eliminating the need to even bring the university to court. In other words, the Roberts Court may well choose a “death by a thousand cuts” strategy rather than one fatal body blow–especially with Justice Kennedy’s ongoing ambivalence–but the result remains the same.

  1. Fisher will be heard on remand by the Fifth Circuit on November 13th of this year. []
  2. Other parts of Proposal 2 also barred preferential treatment for the same categories in public employment and public contracting, but the challengers in Schuette are only questioning the validity of the affirmative action ban in the context of public education. []

Can We Ever Have Too Much Diversity in Our Classrooms?: Grutter, Parents Involved, Fisher and the Fight Over Race-Based Affirmative Action

If at first you don’t succeed, sue.

If you haven’t been living under a rock for the past few months, you’ve probably heard that affirmative action is back on the docket of the Supreme Court this term. Even if you have been living under a rock, you’ve probably still heard about it. You may be sick of hearing about it already. (If so, stop reading.) While there is a whole hell of a lot that can (and will) be said about race-based affirmative action in the context of higher education–whether it’s about its consequences for certain minority groups, its main beneficiaries, its effectiveness or its future direction–I’m going to limit myself to an overview of SCOTUS’ recent affirmative action cases and try to point out some of the inconsistencies that the Court must resolve with Fisher v. University of Texas (to be argued this Wednesday), and then close out with a couple of thoughts on affirmative action in general.

Fisher arises directly from a pair of 2003 cases involving the University of Michigan, Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger. Jennifer Gratz, a white applicant to the undergraduate school, argued that UM’s practice of granting underrepresented racial minorities automatic “points” in an admissions equation violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. Barbara Grutter, a white applicant to the law school, argued that UM Law’s practice of taking race into account in its admissions decisions, period, was also unconstitutional.

Now for a little bit of constitutional law: in Equal Protection challenges, a government policy that affords differential treatment between the races is examined under a standard known as “strict scrutiny.” Strict scrutiny means that the policy can only be upheld if the government can show two things: (1) a “compelling state interest,” and (2) “narrowly tailored” means to achieve this goal. Applying this standard, the Supreme Court ruled for Gratz–striking down the undergraduate school’s “bonus” points for underrepresented minorities–but against Grutter. It distinguished the two admissions schemes based on the fact that the law school merely considered race as one of many potential “pluses” and not as an automatic “booster”. Significantly, the Court accepted UM Law’s rationale that student body diversity itself is a compelling state interest “essential” to UM’s educational mission, because we learn to reject racial stereotypes and see members of different groups as individuals (rather than spokespeople for their entire race) when we encounter them frequently in our classrooms.* It then found that the law school had narrowly tailored its use of race in the admissions process. While quotas and automatic points unfairly insulated candidates from comparison with other applicants, taking race into account as part of a holistic process did not. Thus, UM Law’s policy was constitutional. The majority opinion, authored by Sandra Day O’Connor, represented a compromise between the reality of the obstacles still encountered by underrepresented minority students and the American ideal of a pure, colorblind meritocracy. But Justice O’Connor also wrote that she expected race-conscious admissions policies to be “limited in time” and Grutter to be obsolete in twenty-five years.

Who doesn’t want to be a part of this?

The Court is sixteen years ahead of schedule, but it looks ready to limit or even overturn Grutter now. In Fisher v. University of Texas, Abigail Noel Fisher argues that her rejection from UT violates the Equal Protection Clause. Under existing Texas law, the top 10% of students in every high school in the state receives automatic admission to state-funded universities. Race is not taken into account for this group of students, which is how UT gets 70-80% of its incoming class. For the rest of the applicants who do not make the 10% cutoff (now competing to be part of the remaining 20-30% of UT’s incoming class), race is taken into account as one factor among many, per the Grutter rule. Fisher, who is white, didn’t make the top 10% of her high school, and didn’t make the cut when her application was passed down to the pool where race was taken into consideration. She contends that the UT plan is unconstitutional because Texas doesn’t need to give underrepresented minorities a boost in the non-top-10% pile. UT’s race-neutral top-10% plan already results in a significant number of Latino and African American enrollees and makes UT’s classrooms plenty diverse enough without having to disadvantage Asian American and white applicants, Fisher claims. Any further consideration of race is just a smokescreen used by UT to admit a target number of Latinos and African Americans per year–in other words, a racial quota, which is expressly banned by SCOTUS. Texas, on the other hand, doesn’t see a problem with making its classes more racially diverse than the top 10% plan would allow and thus considers race as merely one part (“a factor of a factor of a factor of a factor”) of its holistic look at the non-top-10% applicants.

Fisher never directly argues that Grutter was wrong to accept diversity in higher education as a compelling interest, only that UT has already achieved adequate diversity through race-blind means and should stop there. (In other words, there is a “tipping point” of racial diversity after which you become less diverse by admitting too many students of color, despite the irony that white students are currently admitted at a higher rate under Texas’ non-top-10% holistic consideration than under the top-10% rule, thus… increasing racial diversity at UT.) But Fisher also wants the Court to consider clarifying or overturning Grutter altogether because courts have been too deferential to schools’ admission schemes–not truly questioning whether there is both a compelling state interest and narrowly tailored means–thus turning Grutter into a meaningless and unworkable standard.

On this argument, Fisher may very well find a majority of sympathetic Justices. It’s helpful to her that the perspective of the Court has changed dramatically in the past nine years, now that Sandra Day O’Connor has retired and Samuel Alito and John Roberts have moved in. Justices Alito and Roberts have made no secret of their disapproval of race-based affirmative action. Importantly, Roberts ruled in 2007’s Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 that Seattle could not use race as a “tiebreaker” when assigning elementary students to schools. Justice Roberts refused to acknowledge that diversity was a compelling state interest at the grade school level, dismissing Seattle’s goals of reducing racial isolation and racially-entrenched housing patterns. Unlike Justice O’Connor, Roberts believes that society is already colorblind enough, and that all this talk about racism is what’s really perpetuating racism: “[t]he way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

No diversity for you!

Where things get sticky is when we try to make sense of Grutter and Parents Involved together. Parents Involved did not overturn Grutter; both are good law. Justice Roberts made sure to dispose of Grutter early on in his opinion, noting that it was limited to the realm of higher education and therefore did not apply to Parents Involved, which took place in the context of grade schooling. But this seemingly pat division raises inconsistencies when you look at what the Court is saying about diversity in each case: how can student diversity suddenly become compelling at the age of 18 and above when it hasn’t been for the last 12 years? Does it actually make any sense to say that elementary and high school students don’t need to be exposed to peers of different cultures and backgrounds, but then say that this exposure becomes of paramount importance when you leave for college, where you can then learn to reject racial stereotypes? Wouldn’t it be too late by then, and wouldn’t it make more sense to start teaching these lessons at an early age? Roberts wriggled his way out of this in Parents Involved by appealing to nebulous “considerations unique to institutions of higher education,” though he doesn’t bother to elaborate on how exactly this is different for grade school education. But either you believe that the state has a right to cobble together diverse classrooms in order to teach its young people acceptance and respect, or you don’t. It looks as though the Court’s conservative wing–Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito–is eager to take the latter approach.

I am confused but powerful.

As ever, it may come down to Justice Anthony Kennedy, the current swing vote who will surely play as crucial of a role now as Justice O’Connor did in 2003. (Justice Elena Kagan has recused herself, so a 4-4 tie would mean that the Fifth Circuit’s decision upholding the UT plan stands, but if Kennedy votes with the four conservatives, UT loses 5-3.) And on the topic of affirmative action, Justice Kennedy seems to be a bit confused. Kennedy dissented in Grutter. He agreed with Justice O’Connor that diversity was in fact a compelling state interest, but found UM Law’s admissions scheme unconstitutional because he did not think it was narrowly tailored. In Parents Involved, Justice Kennedy again found that the challenged plan met the compelling interest test but not the narrowly tailored requirement. His concurrence broke with Justice Roberts on the question of whether diversity is a compelling educational goal at the grade school level (Kennedy believes it is), but then slammed the Seattle plan for categorizing students as “white” and “non-white” and not being narrowly tailored. Ultimately, his vote alongside the Court’s conservatives decided the case in favor of Parents Involved and the Seattle plan was struck down. What’s unclear, however, is exactly what kind of a plan Justice Kennedy would find narrowly tailored enough, and whether the University of Texas scheme will meet this unknown Kennedy standard. While diversity may survive as a compelling state interest as long as Kennedy hasn’t changed his mind, the UT plan might not–and if it doesn’t, schools across the country will be sent scrambling once again to devise a plan that does pass muster.** Diversity is nice, the Court seems to be saying, but we still haven’t figured out what the best way to achieve that is, or where we cross over the line into too much diversity.

As a final note, it’s worth remembering that colleges and grad schools use affirmative action in their admissions decisions in a multitude of ways that extend well beyond race. Justice O’Connor noted in Grutter that the University of Michigan’s admissions policy included “many possible bases for diversity admissions,” including languages spoken, community service performed and hardships overcome. Studies consistently show that female students get better grades in school and outperform men in universities, but colleges use gender affirmative action to try to admit a male-female student ratio as close to 50-50 as possible (since a student body that skews too much toward one gender will hurt campus social life and be “unappealing”). Schools use geographic affirmative action–if there’s 50 applicants from California and 50 applicants from New York with perfect GPA’s and perfect SAT scores and one applicant from North Dakota with an almost-perfect GPA and almost-perfect SAT scores, there’s a good chance that the North Dakotan is going to be admitted ahead of at least some of the perfect California and NY applicants despite the lower numbers. Athletes get preferences. Legacies get preferences (sometimes getting a boost in admissions chances by as much as a whopping 45%). And the list goes on and on. If a school has 50 applications from clarinet players and one from a piccolo player and it just so happens that the university orchestra’s one piccolo has just graduated, the piccoloist might get a bit of a boost. Amidst a pile of 50 applications from students who speak French as a second language and one from a student who is fluent in Croatian, the Croatian speaker might get some special consideration.

Despite all this, very few people ever kick up a big fuss about the injustices in the admissions process that discriminate against non-athletes, non-legacies, non-piccolo players, non-Croatian speakers and women, choosing instead to cry foul about race-based preferences. After all, Abigail Fisher isn’t mad about the male students or the children of UT alumni who might have cost her a shot at being a Longhorn. She’s mad about the African American and Latino students who got in before her, because it’s somehow easier to swallow the idea that students of color are the ones “stealing” spots they don’t deserve, and that they bring less to the college or grad school experience than other “preferred” students do. Of course, the existing system of affirmative action is not perfect, and there are a lot of ideas out there about what we can do to improve it.*** But the Supreme Court would do well to consider the realities of the holistic admissions process–which already have built-in considerations that benefit white/upper-class/male applicants and that have largely been left unchallenged in the courts–before it tries to convince us that we’ve reached our colorblind ideal, sixteen years ahead of schedule.

*The idea that racial diversity in the context of education can be a compelling state interest is not a new one; SCOTUS had accepted this argument earlier in the 1978 case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke.

**Or they could switch to a completely race-blind admissions process in which top-scoring students constitute all of the incoming class. In the absolute worst-case scenario for supporters of affirmative action, Kennedy may agree with Fisher’s argument that it’s time to stop considering race in higher education, period, and overturn Grutter.

***Richard Kahlenberg, who I’ve linked to multiple times in this post, has done extensive research into both race-based and legacy affirmative action and advocates a switch to income-based affirmative action, an approach which, he argues, would benefit many underrepresented minority students as well as students from lower-income white and Asian American families.

Victoria Kwan holds a J.D. from Columbia Law School in New York and has just completed a clerkship with a judge in Anchorage, Alaska. She tweets as @nerdmeetsboy and will continue to post periodically here on legal issues. Rumor has it she and Jay Pinho are dating.