Split Ruling on Affirmative Action
High Court Rules on Race as Factor in University Admissions

Listen NPR's Nina Totenberg reports on the decision in Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger for All Things Considered

Listen NPR's Juan Williams talks with Todd Guizano, director of legal studies for The Heritage Foundation, and Lani Guinier of Harvard Law School

Supreme Court of the United States
Supreme Court of the United States
Photo: David Banks, NPR Online

Following the Case: Barbara Grutter v. Lee Bollinger, et al.

June 23, 2003 -- The U.S. Supreme Court rules 5-4 in favor of the University of Michigan's Law School use of race in considering admissions
» Full opinions of the justices
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April 1, 2003 -- The U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments
» Full transcript
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Dec. 2, 2002 -- The U.S. Supreme Court grants the plaintiffs an appeal of the Sixth Circuit Court ruling
» Bush administration support of the appeal
» Defendant's argument against the appeal

May 14, 2002 -- The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reverses the original District Court ruling. Writing for the court's majority, Chief Circuit Judge Boyce F. Martin Jr. cites the "compelling state interest" in allowing a narrowly tailored points system to develop a diverse student body.
» Read the court's ruling

March 27, 2001 -- Grutter v. Bollinger first filed in U.S. District Court, Eastern Division of Michigan. Judge Bernard Friedman rules in favor of the plaintiff, saying the University of Michigan Law School's use of race in admissions violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
» Read the court's ruling
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Gratz et al v. Bollinger et al

June 23, 2003 -- The U.S. Supreme Court rules 6-3 against of the University of Michigan's points system benefitting minorities in the admissions process
» Full opinions of the justices
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June 23, 2003 -- In its first ruling on affirmative action in higher education admissions in 25 years, the nation's highest court ruled Monday that race can be used in university admission decisions. But the narrowly divided court also seemed to put limits on how much of a factor race can play in giving minority students an advantage in the admissions process.

The U.S. Supreme Court justices decided on two separate but parallel cases -- they voted 5-4 to uphold the University of Michigan's law school affirmative action policy, which favors minorities. But in a 6-3 vote, the justices struck down the affirmative action policy for undergraduate admissions, which awards 20 points for blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans on an admissions rating scale.

The cases tested whether the university is allowed to discriminate because it values diversity in its student body, or whether discrimination is only justified to reverse past racial injustice.

The pivotal case, Grutter v. Bollinger, involved the university's law school. Barbara Grutter, who is white, applied for admission there in 1996. She was rejected. She investigated and found out that African Americans and ethnic minorities who had lower overall admissions scores were admitted. Grutter sued, saying she was a victim of illegal discrimination.

Grutter's lawyers argued that the admissions program at the university's law school was unconstitutional. They based the argument on a 1978 case, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, where the court ruled that a school could take race and ethnicity into account -- but couldn't use quotas. Instead, admissions programs must be "narrowly tailored" to harm as few people as possible.

Grutter and her supporters won the first round in U.S. District Court, but lost in a close decision in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers the states of Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee. The majority of appellate court justices sided with the university view that a diverse student body has its own benefits, and that a "points" system for admission that takes the race of the applicant into account in an overall score wasn't a quota. Grutter appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was the eventual deciding vote in Grutter, saying that affirmative action is still needed in America -- but hoped that its days are numbered. "We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today."

In the undergraduate case, Gratz v. Bollinger, the 6-3 majority ruled the points system violated equal protection provisions of the Constitution. Chief Justice William Rehnquist said the use of race was not "narrowly tailored" to achieve the university's diversity goals.

In Depth

Click to search for more storiesBrowse more NPR News coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court and affirmative action.

Listen Listen to the full-length audio of oral arguments before the Supreme Court, heard April 1, 2003 (2 hours).

Other Resources

University of Michigan admissions lawsuit Web site

The Center for Individual Rights has provided legal assistance to plaintiffs Barbara Grutter, Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hamacher in their battle against the university's admissions policy.

Findlaw.com: Grutter v. Bollinger -- Read the friend-of-the-court briefs filed on behalf of both the plaintiffs and defendants, and browse other cases pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Transcripts of oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court

Affirmative Action.org, Web site for the American Association for Affirmative Action, supports the University of Michigan's admissions policy.

click for moreMORE: NPR News coverage of the rulings and issues leading up to the June 23, 2003, Supreme Court decisions