By a vote of 6 to 2, the Supreme Court upheld Michigan’s ban on the use of race-based affirmative action in public university admissions decisions Tuesday morning. The decision comes as another blow to affirmative action advocates after recent efforts to reinstitute affirmative action in the University of California public school system had died in legislation.
“This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in a controlling opinion. “It is about who may resolve it,” he added.
Kennedy said the Court did not have the constitutional authority to overturn the outcome of a 2006 Michigan ballot initiative where voters backed an end to racial preferences at state schools. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito LAW ’75 joined his controlling opinion. Both Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas LAW ’74 concurred with the outcome but added their desire to scrap all officially sponsored affirmative action.
The conservative majority, already secure in victory with Justice Elena Kagan recusing herself, was solidified when traditionally liberal Justice Stephen Breyer agreed with the judgement. The judgment was a reversal of the 8-7 ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit that the initiative violated the federal Constitution’s equal protection clause.
Still, Justice Sonia Sotomayor LAW’79 dissented, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In a sign of her displeasure at the judgment, Sotomayor read her dissent from the bench, adding that the initiative was a major blow to minority groups that rely on the federal courts to protect their constitutional rights.
Legal scholars said the decision to overturn the ruling was not surprising after oral arguments where a majority of the justices had been skeptical of how requiring the admissions process to be color-blind could violate the constitution’s guarantee of equal protection.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled along partisan lines. All eight judges in the majority were Democratic nominees while the seven judges in dissent were Republican nominations.