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Supreme Court decision upholds and limits affirmative action

Discussion /

June 25, 2003 Posted: 7:31 PM EDT (2331 GMT)
Students on the University of Michigan campus celebrate Monday’s rulings by the Supreme Court.
Students on the University of Michigan campus celebrate Monday’s rulings by the Supreme Court.  

The U.S. Supreme Court has made a landmark split decision that allows universities to use race as a factor in choosing which students to admit. However, the court limited the extent to which that factor could be used.

In a case involving the University of Michigan law school, the justices determined 5-4 that the consideration of race in university admissions "is not prohibited by the Equal Protection Clause" of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. That clause was set up to ensure that state laws treat each individual equally.

The Supreme Court's decision says that the Equal Protection Clause is not violated when university officials consider an applicant's race as one factor in a flexible effort to achieve a diverse student body.

However, the court voted 6-3 to reject a more structured admissions policy at Michigan's undergraduate school. That policy automatically assigned extra points to minorities, which virtually ensured that all qualified minority applicants to the school would be accepted.

The justices ruled that the undergraduate policy violated the Equal Protection Clause because it did not employ the consideration of applicants on their overall individual merit. The policy instead used race as the determining factor in whether a student was accepted to the school - a move the Supreme Court saw as going too far in giving minority students preference.

The court's decisions effectively uphold affirmative action in university admissions. Affirmative action was designed to help minorities in an effort to make up for the discrimination they faced in the past. An example of its use in the field of education is in the reservation of some college admissions slots for minority students. Without these slots, some minority students might not have been accepted to their university of choice.

The court's rulings seemed to please both supporters and opponents of affirmative action. Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan, said that the decision "means at its core that affirmative action may still be used. And the court [has] given us a road map to get there, and so we're very, very excited and pleased."

Terence Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights, said that the court's ruling "raised the bar - the court made it harder for schools to take race into account."

Many officials are comparing the rulings to the so-called Bakke decision of 1978. In that ruling, the Supreme Court said that quotas (allotments of slots to certain individuals) in university admissions were illegal, but that race could still be a consideration when admitting students.

The new rulings affect more than school admissions. According to Supreme Court Appellate Attorney Thomas Goldstein, the rulings are a "road map not just for universities, but affirmative action generally." The decisions encourage the consideration of other factors besides race, he added.

President Bush also appeared to favor the court's rulings. Though he complained previously that both University of Michigan admissions programs amounted to a quota system, he said the new rulings "seek a careful balance between the goal of campus diversity and the fundamental principle of equal treatment under the law."

Some critics of the rulings, however, see the decisions as confusing. Justice Antonin Scalia dissented, calling the rulings a "split double-header" and saying that they seemed "perversely designed to prolong the confrontation and the litigation" regarding affirmative action.

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