Michigan affirmative action ban upheld by Supreme Court

Published on NewsOK Modified: April 22, 2014 at 11:01 am •  Published: April 22, 2014
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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court dealt a blow to affirmative action, upholding a voter-approved ban on racial preferences at Michigan's state-run universities in a decision that may spur similar initiatives elsewhere.

The justices, voting 6-2, said Tuesday that racial preferences were a legitimate subject to be put before the state's voters. A federal appeals court had said Michigan unconstitutionally stripped racial minorities of their rights.

"Democracy does not presume that some subjects are either too divisive or too profound for public debate," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the court's lead opinion.

The ruling has both symbolic and substantive significance. A decade ago, the University of Michigan won a Supreme Court decision that let institutions across the country continue to use race as an admissions factor. The survival of the voter- approved initiative means that ruling is nullified for the university that secured it.

Black enrollment is down about 30 percent at the undergraduate and law schools since the measure took effect, according to the university's figures. Michigan is one of 10 states where race-conscious admissions are barred at public institutions, by ballot initiative or other government action.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented. Sotomayor, who took the unusual step of reading a summary of her dissent from the bench, wrote that the court was "permitting the majority to use its numerical advantage to change the rules mid-contest and forever stack the deck against racial minorities in Michigan."

Chief Justice John Roberts has sought to steer the court toward a color-blind approach to the Constitution. Sotomayor wrote that Roberts' approach was "out of touch with reality."

Roberts responded that "it is not 'out of touch with reality'" to conclude that racial preferences may "do more harm than good" by sowing doubt among beneficiaries about their own qualifications.

Kennedy wrote for himself, Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito. His opinion distinguished, without overruling, decades-old Supreme Court decisions barring government actions that restructure the political process along racial lines. In a 1982 case, the court invalidated a Washington ballot initiative that had prohibited busing for purposes of desegregating schools.

"Those cases were ones in which the political restriction in question was designed to be used, or was likely to be used, to encourage infliction of injury by reason of race," Kennedy wrote. He said that wasn't the case with the Michigan initiative.