Office of Planning and Budgeting

Supreme Court Hears Michigan Affirmative Action Case

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court appeared to be in favor of upholding a Michigan referendum, known as Proposition 2, which banned the use of affirmative action in the state’s public colleges and universities. The case, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, is not about whether it is permissible for public colleges to consider race and ethnicity in admissions, but whether it is legal for voters to bar such consideration. For background information about this case, please see our previous post.

Tuesday’s arguments focused primarily on a piece of the Equal Protection Clause, known as the “political process doctrine,” which states that political processes cannot be altered in a way that puts minorities at a disadvantage. Opponents of Proposition 2, contend that, under the measure, minority groups who want to reinstate affirmative action must launch a difficult and expensive campaign to re-amend the state constitution, whereas Michigan citizens seeking changes to other university admissions policies are free to simply lobby university regents. This, they argue, places an unfair and disadvantageous burden on minorities.

Swing vote, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, expressed doubts about whether Proposition 2 truly violates the political process doctrine and only two liberal members of the court voiced major criticisms of the Michigan measure. Thus, with Justice Elena Kagan recused from the case, the numbers point toward the court upholding Proposition 2. Such a decision would effectively preserve similar bans adopted by voters in Arizona, California, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Washington; by lawmakers in New Hampshire; and by the public university governing board in Florida. In addition, it could theoretically embolden campaigns for similar ballot measures
elsewhere.

While it seems clear the Justices will rule in favor of Michigan, it is less clear whether the Justices are interested in reversing the political process doctrine, which dates back more than 40 years. In 1982, for example, the justices ruled against a Washington referendum that attempted to prevent Seattle from using a local busing program to desegregate schools. NPR reports that Michigan Solicitor General, John Bursch, “urged the Supreme Court to reverse the Seattle decision and others like it, if necessary.”

We’ll post updates as more information becomes available.

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