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The Supreme Court has upheld a Michigan ban on affirmative action in higher education. Today's 6-2 decision is likely to set the stage for further battles over affirmative action in the political arena as well as the courts. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Michigan has been at the center of the battle over affirmative action for more than a decade. In 2003, the Supreme Court, in a landmark ruling, re-affirmed once again that colleges and universities may consider race as one factor in admissions, just as they would consider athletic skill or whether an applicant's parents attended the same university. Three years later, Michigan voters, by a huge margin, passed a referendum to amend the state constitution and ban any consideration of race in admissions.

A federal appeals court invalidated the ban, citing earlier Supreme Court rulings that guaranteed equal access to the political process. Today, the Supreme Court, however, reversed that ruling and re-instated the ban. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the lead opinion for the court. But there was no single justice whose legal reasoning attracted a majority. Kennedy stressed that today's ruling is not about how the debate over affirmative action should be resolved but about who should resolve it.

And here, he said, the voters were perfectly free to get rid of a voluntary affirmative action program without interference from the courts. Despite Kennedy's protestations to the contrary, Harvard Law School professor Mark Tushnet says that the decision, in fact, telegraphs something important about the court and affirmative action.

MARK TUSHNET: It's clear that five justices are either extremely uncomfortable with affirmative action or believe that affirmative action programs are automatically unconstitutional.

TOTENBERG: Charles Fried, who served as solicitor general in the Reagan administration, says Kennedy's opinion deftly negotiated some tricky legal territory to reach the right resolve.

CHARLES FRIED: The outcome, I think, is completely correct because otherwise you would have the mad result that affirmative action is on a ratchet. Once the voters or an administrative board or a legislature adopts it, you can't go backwards. It's unconstitutional to go backwards, although having gone there is not constitutionally required.

TOTENBERG: In upholding the ban on affirmative action, Justice Kennedy's opinion also cut back on the so-called political process doctrine under which the court, for decades, has eliminated barriers to minority participation in the political process. His opinion, however, was joined in full only by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas would have struck down the political process doctrine entirely, and Justice Stephen Breyer had a yet different approach.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in an impassioned dissent she read aloud from the bench, said the Constitution does not guarantee victory in the political process for minorities but it guarantees that the majority may not stack the deck. And here, she said, by amending the state constitution, the referendum had rigged the rules, making it impossible for minorities to engage in the kind of lobbying for preferences that everyone else can engage in at the legislature or the board of regents.

The Supreme Court's decision is likely to set the stage for more battles over affirmative action in the states. Including Michigan, seven states have current bans on affirmative action and higher education, some enacted by referendum and others by order of the governor, as in Florida. Christopher Edley is the former dean of the law school at the University of California, Berkeley.

CHRISTOPHER EDLEY: California's experience has been difficult because immediately following the ban on race-conscious affirmative action, the enrollment of African-Americans and Latinos plummeted in the selective higher education institutions. It has yet to fully recover.

TOTENBERG: Other states with bans have had similar drops in minority enrollment, but some have seen minority admission stay steady or climb. Whatever the merits of today's ruling, many see it in a larger context. Louisiana State University professor Paul Finkelman was one of 75 historians and law professors who filed a brief in the case, arguing that the framers of the 14th Amendment intended there be race-conscious remedies to bring racial minorities into full participation in American life.

PAUL FINKELMAN: I think the framers would be shocked by the direction that the Supreme Court has taken with regard to race in general because the court has essentially said that the Constitution does not provide a mechanism for preserving and creating racial and ethnic equality in the United States.

TOTENBERG: Professor Tushnet looked at the history of the last 60 years and sees a court that used to protect minority rights now nullifying measures like the Voting Rights Act, a law passed by Congress to prevent discrimination in voting.

TUSHNET: When you look at the court's decisions on issues of race over the past probably decade, it's interesting that the beneficiaries of the race-related decisions are basically - not to be too crude about it, but white people.

TOTENBERG: To that, the court's conservative majority might observe that we have an African-American president and increased voting by minorities, sometimes at higher rates than whites. In short, that there's nothing to fix anymore and that the way to stop discriminating based on race, as Chief Justice Roberts once put it, is to stop discriminating based on race. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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