U.S. Supreme Court justices upheld an amendment to Michigan’s constitution on Tuesday banning the use of race in higher education admission decisions.
In a 6-2 ruling, justices found Michigan’s ban on affirmative action in higher education – approved by voters in 2006 – is constitutional. The court did not strike down affirmative action, as Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion, but it did rule that voters have the right to ban or restrict it at the state level.
“This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved,” Kennedy wrote. “It is about who may resolve it. There is no authority in the Constitution of the United States or in this court’s precedents for the judiciary to set aside Michigan laws that commit this policy determination to the voters.”
Left-leaning Justice Stephen Breyer joined the court’s conservative wing in upholding the ban. Justice Elena Kagan recused herself, while Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor voted against the ruling.
Sotomayor wrote in her dissent that upholding Michigan’s affirmative action ban weakens the ability of minorities to participate in society equally.
“The Constitution does not protect racial minorities from political defeat,” she wrote. “But neither does it give the majority free rein to erect selective barriers against racial minorities.”
The ruling is the latest decision in a decades-long series of events that have ignited passions from both sides of the issue regarding who can attend Michigan’s public universities.
After 58 percent of voters banned the use of affirmative action in admissions decisions in 2006, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the amendment by an 8-7 margin in 2012.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who appealed the ruling, praised the Supreme Court’s decision in a statement.
“Today’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court is monumental,” Schuette said. “The ruling is a victory for the Constitution, a victory for Michigan citizens, and a victory for the rule of law.”
Schuette, who is running for re-election this November, said the court upheld “the basic concept of equality and fairness” in its ruling.
“It is fundamentally wrong to treat people differently based on the color of their skin,” Schuette said. “The U.S. Supreme Court heard the voices of equality and the voices of the people.”
The decision drew the ire of several pro-affirmative action groups, including the American Federation of Teachers.
“The spirit of affirmative action is about providing equal opportunity for all students and encouraging the benefits of diversity in our classrooms and workplaces,” said AFT Michigan President David Hecker. “This ruling is another blow to students across our state, particularly in light of Gov. (Rick) Snyder’s harmful cuts to public education.”
Race in admissions is likely to remain a hot topic in Michigan this year, if recent news out of the University of Michigan is any indication.
Last week, a black Detroit high school student protested the university denying her admission, saying U-M needs to do more to increase admission rates for minority students by pointing to a decline in the percentage of African-Americans comprising the student body. In 2011, 5 percent of Michigan students were black, despite making up 19 percent of the state’s population.
Many critics, including Jennifer Gratz, the affirmative action critic at the heart of the Supreme Court’s hearing after being denied admission at U-M despite a 3.8 GPA, said race ought to be a non-factor in admission decisions. They say all decisions should be based on merit, pointing to the student’s ACT score of 23, well below Michigan’s median ACT score.
One of those critics is Terry Joseph, a CMU Redford junior.
“I think affirmative action is useful in many areas, and I think colleges should do their best to make sure minorities can be represented on campus,” he said, “but admissions should be based on how you do in school only, nothing else.”
Most states that have banned affirmative action in admissions decisions – including Michigan, Texas and California – have seen admissions rates for black and Hispanic students fall significantly at their “elite” institutions, according to The New York Times. In addition to the aforementioned 15-point gap at U-M, Michigan State University has a 12-point gap between its black student population (7 percent) and the general population (19 percent).