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U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Use of Race Under Limited Circumstances in College Admissions Programs

  • June 23, 2003

The United States Supreme Court ruled today in two of the most highly anticipated cases pending before the Court in years. Both cases arise from the admissions procedures used by the University of Michigan. One case, Gratz v. Bollinger, challenged the University's undergraduate admission policy, and the other, Grutter v. Bollinger, challenged the University's law school admissions policy. At issue was the University's practice of considering race as one factor in the admissions process to achieve a more diverse student body. Today, the Supreme Court ruled that using race in the university's admissions process to achieve a diverse student body is a compelling governmental interest that, if narrowly tailored, does not violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, or the federal civil rights statute known as Section 1981. Applying this reasoning to the two cases, the Court upheld the law school's admission process but struck down the undergraduate admissions program as unconstitutional.

In the Grutter case, the Supreme Court found that the law school's admission process, which counts race as a "plus," was "narrowly tailored" to achieve a desired "critical mass" of minorities among the student body. The law school considered race as one of a number of other factors in addition to academic credentials in the admissions process. The law school's individualized assessment process adequately insured that all factors that may contribute to diversity were meaningfully considered alongside race. Thus, the admissions program was narrowly tailored because it did not insulate minorities from competition with non-minorities, a fatal flaw in the Gratz case.

In the Gratz decision, the Court struck down Michigan's undergraduate admissions program which afforded underrepresented minorities an automatic 20-point bonus on a 150-point scale. Candidates with high enough scores were automatically insulated from rejection. The 20-point bonus gave minority candidates an enormous advantage over non-minority candidates and did not provide the "individualized consideration" of each applicant needed to withstand a constitutional challenge. Instead, the 20-point advantage made "race a decisive factor for virtually every minimally qualified underrepresented minority applicant." In essence this created a separate admissions track for minorities and therefore, was tantamount to an unconstitutional quota system.

The need for diversity in today's business world was a factor that influenced the Supreme Court's decision that achieving a diverse student body is a compelling governmental interest. The Court recognized the unique nature of higher education as a feeder group for business, politics and the judiciary, especially at top tier schools. This recognition by the Court should be of special interest to private employers, which often struggle to articulate a lawful basis for diversity initiatives. Nonetheless, based upon the Supreme Court's split decisions regarding the lawful use of race as a factor in selection systems, employers should carefully review their recruitment and selection procedures, diversity initiatives, affirmative action plans and any other programs that afford preferences to minorities, such as scholarship, mentoring and internship programs. Even before the Supreme Court's pronouncements in these decisions, employers carefully had to construct such programs to avoid potential liability for reverse discrimination from non-minorities who could allege they were unlawfully excluded from the benefits of the programs.

View Grutter v. Bollinger decision (.PDF file/964 KB/95 pgs.)

View Gratz v. Bollinger decision  (.PDF file/886 KB/68 pgs.)

Effective June 24, a detailed analysis of the Supreme Court's decisions and their implications for employers will be available on the Jackson Lewis website.

©2003 Jackson Lewis P.C. This material is provided for informational purposes only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice nor does it create a client-lawyer relationship between Jackson Lewis and any recipient. Recipients should consult with counsel before taking any actions based on the information contained within this material. This material may be considered attorney advertising in some jurisdictions. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.

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