Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action

On April 22, 2014, the United States Supreme Court (Supreme Court) in a 6-2 decision upheld a constitutional amendment that Michigan voters approved to ban the consideration of race and gender in public education. The case, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action (Schuette), reviewed a 2006 Michigan ballot initiative that amended the state’s constitution. Schuette comprised two lawsuits that were brought separately, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action brought by BAMN (By Any Means Necessary) was combined with Cantrell v. Granholm, brought by the ACLU, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and others on behalf of students, faculty and prospective applicants to the University of Michigan.

The Ruling

Justice Kennedy wrote the plurality opinion, and  stated that “[t]here 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;” he was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito. Justice Kennedy stated that the Sixth Circuit’s decision had called into question “other long-settled rulings on similar state policies,” including the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s upholding of a ban on race-conscious admissions passed by California voters in 1996. If the Supreme Court were to affirm the Sixth Circuit’s decision, Justice Kennedy wrote, it “in essence would announce a finding that the past 15 years of state public debate on this issue have been improper.”

Justice Sotomayor filed a dissent and was joined by Justice Ginsburg. Justice Sotomayor outlined what she described as the nation’s “long and lamentable record of stymieing the right of racial minorities to participate in the political process.” She wrote that those opposed to affirmative action policies could have either lobbied the boards of the state’s universities to change their policies or, through the electoral process, change the membership of the boards.  She invokes the “political-process doctrine,” recognized in Hunter v. Erickson (1969) and Washington v. Seattle School District No. 1 (1982), whereby “when the majority reconfigures the political process in a manner that burdens only a racial minority, that alteration triggers strict judicial scrutiny.” Furthermore, she argued that the amendment to Michigan’s Constitution had created “two very different processes through which a Michigan citizen is permitted to influence the admissions policies of the state’s universities: one for persons interested in race-sensitive admissions policies and one for everyone else.”

Take Away

The Supreme Court did not end affirmative action but instead upheld the right of state voters to ban it. In essence, the question was in what manner voters in the states may choose to prohibit the consideration of racial preferences. The ruling supports similar laws to Michigan’s ban in such states as California (banned in 1998), Florida (banned in 2001), Texas (banned in 1997), and Washington (banned in 1999), and solidifies the right of states to determine the usage of affirmative action.

Source: Valachovic, R, Knight, Y. United States Supreme Court Decision in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action [Unpublished memorandum]. 2014. Washington, DC: American Dental Education Association.