The Supreme Court justices have an opportunity to correct a wrong-headed decision by voters. The issue at hand is whether Michigan’s voters violated the Constitution by forbidding race-conscious admissions at the state’s public universities.
Michigan’s Proposal 2 was a response to a 2003 Supreme Court decision that upheld the use of race as one factor in law school admissions as part of the effort to ensure diversity in the classroom. But Proposal 2, approved in 2006 by 58 percent of voters, amended the state constitution to prohibit discrimination or preferential treatment in public education, government contracting and public employment.
In the case now before the court, affirmative action advocacy groups have sued to block the part of the law concerning higher education. The decision could ripple across the nation. California has a similar ban on the use of racial preferences. Laws in Arizona, Florida, Oklahoma, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Washington also could be affected.
A decision to uphold the 2006 vote in Michigan will present a direct threat to diversity in college classrooms.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts said that it is “open to debate” whether preferential treatment actually benefits minority groups. His comment and the soft volleys he and his conservative colleagues sent Michigan Solicitor General John Bursch could be seen as predictable, and may signal how the court will rule. They left their toughest questions and scathing rebukes for those arguing on behalf of plaintiffs challenging the ban.
One of the four liberal justices, Elena Kagan, recused herself, presumably because she had worked on a case as U.S. solicitor general. That makes overturning the Michigan ban even more of an uphill fight.
Affirmative action is a controversial subject that generates strong opinions on both sides. The goal of diverse classrooms is a worthy one. Diversity helps create good citizens by allowing students to interact with others of completely different backgrounds. The controversy is over how to achieve that diversity.
While test scores are important in college admissions, many other subjective factors are considered. Such things as volunteer work, essays, alumni parents and high-level recommendations all tend to work against less-privileged candidates, including minorities. The use of race as one factor in deciding admissions is an attempt to level that playing field.
Affirmative action was never meant to be a permanent part of college admissions. It is an attempt to provide a leg up to groups that still suffer the aftereffects of discrimination. In her decision in the 2003 case, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote, “The Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”
Little has changed in America over the last decade to invalidate that decision. Diversity in classrooms remains important enough for race to remain as one factor in admissions.