Supreme Court hears affirmative action arguments
By Bill Mears
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court hears arguments Tuesday on what experts say is the most significant affirmative action case in a quarter-century
The arguments -- to be made for two cases -- are a challenge to undergraduate and law school admissions policies at the University of Michigan. At issue is whether race can be used as a factor in admissions to publicly funded institutions, as part of an affirmative action program.
Justices will be asked to decide whether a state has a "compelling interest" to promote a diverse student body, or whether the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment forbids giving one ethnic group or minority special advantages over another.
The cases have sparked an affirmative action debate unlike any since the court ruled 5-4 in 1978 to outlaw racial quotas in university admissions but allowed race to be considered as a factor.
The political, social and economic stakes are high. The Bush administration has weighed in to oppose the university's policy, while dozens of top corporations are among those supporting the school.
While this case is about access to education, the Supreme Court's ruling could have rippling effects on affirmative action programs in job hiring and government contracts.
The justices on the Supreme Court are aware of the tremendous attention surrounding the case. A record number of supporting briefs from various groups were filed with the Court, numbering in the hundreds.
In a January speech outlining his position, President Bush labeled Michigan's approach "divisive, unfair and impossible to square with the Constitution."
A number of conservative groups, as well the state of Florida and a law professors' organization also support the students.
On the other side, a broad coalition of groups -- from much of corporate America, to civil rights activists, and a coalition of retired military leaders have weighed in on the university's behalf.
Focus on two women
Tuesday's cases center focus on two women. Jennifer Gratz was a top high school student in suburban Detroit, Michigan, in 1995 when her application to the only college she applied was rejected.
"The University of Michigan is treating people differently based on skin color, and that's unconstitutional," she said in a recent interview.
The university openly acknowledges it uses race as a factor in admissions, relying on a complicated point scale to rate applicants. Grades and academics are most important, but members of minority groups receive extra points. Gratz's lawyers call that a "super bonus," equivalent to a full grade point on a student's grade-point average.
"I think it's a shame that the university looks at minority students and basically tells them that they are inferior and need these points to be accepted," Gratz said.
Barbara Grutter is a 49-year-old mother of two, who ran her own consulting business. Her 1997 application to Michigan's prestigious law school was rejected. She says the school essentially runs two admissions systems to get a pre-determined racial mix of students.
"I have a lot of experience I could have brought to that class," Grutter told CNN in a 1999 interview. She acknowledged people from every race encounter disadvantages, but said discrimination is wrong, whatever the reason.
School: Society benefits
The University of Michigan has had its admission policy in place for more than a decade. And officials proudly argue all students benefit, as does society at large.
"We educate a well-prepared, diverse work force," university president Mary Sue Coleman said. "The students who learn in diverse classrooms know how to take that cross-cultural understanding into America's industries."
The law school is one of the most prestigious in the country. The undergraduate program receives 25,000 applications each year, but only about 5,000 are admitted.
African Americans make up about 9 percent of this year's freshman class, Latinos 6 percent, and Native Americans about 2 percent.
"Our ability to be strong relies on our ability to seek diversity," Coleman said.
Many court observers say the justices sense the time is right to re-examine an unresolved issue that has been percolating for a quarter-century.
"These represent the most significant civil right cases the Supreme Court will have decided in the last quarter century," said Ted Shaw, NAACP Associate Counsel. "This issue is nothing less than whether the doors of opportunity remain open for students of color."
Ambiguous 1978 ruling
Affirmative action programs were originally created to correct racial and cultural discrimination, dating from the days of slavery and public segregation. But many advocates on the issue agree the initiatives have proven controversial, and some say enforcement often has been applied in a random and confusing way.
One reason: the Supreme Court's ambiguous ruling in the 1978 Bakke case, the last time Court addressed affirmative action in public universities. The Court at the time ruled the University of California at Davis could not hold a quota of places for minorities. (Regents v. Bakke)
Writing in the case, the late Justice Lewis Powell wrote, "The goal of achieving a diverse student body is sufficiently compelling to justify consideration of race... under some circumstances."
Since then, federal courts around the country have offered conflicting opinions on the legality of affirmative action. In legal briefs filed with the Court, lawyers from both sides argued now is the time for the justices to give a clear, definitive ruling on the issue.
A decision in the case is expected by late June.
The cases are Grutter v. Bollinger, Case No. 02-0241, which involves the University of Michigan's law school, and Gratz v. Bollinger, Case No. 02-0516, involving the undergraduate program.