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Grutter v. Bollinger

Citation. 539 U.S. 306 (2003)
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Brief Fact Summary.

A white applicant to the University of Michigan Law School was rejected and subsequently sued the school, arguing that its race-conscious admissions program violated the Constitution.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The University of Michigan Law School’s race-conscious admissions policy did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, because it served the compelling government interest in achieving a diverse student body, and was narrowly tailored to that interest.


The University of Michigan Law School’s admissions policy required the evaluation of applicants’ complete files. One of the “soft variables” admissions officials could consider was diversity, including racial diversity, particularly for historically marginalized groups like Black, Hispanic, and Native Americans. Grutter was a white applicant whose application was rejected. She brought suit, claiming that the University relied on race in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.


Did the race-conscious admissions program used by the University of Michigan Law School violate the Equal Protection Clause?


No, the University of Michigan Law School’s race-conscious admissions program did not violate the Equal Protection Clause.


Justice Rehnquist

Justice Rehnquist argued that the University’s plan was not narrowly tailored, and was in fact impermissible racial balancing.

Justice Kennedy

Justice Kennedy argued that, by deferring to the University’s choose to use race-conscious admissions, the Court did not properly apply strict scrutiny.

Justice Scalia

Justice Scalia contested the University’s assertion that its race-conscious admissions program contributed to educational benefits.

Justice Thomas

Justice Thomas argued that the only compelling government interest in a strict scrutiny analysis is national security. He also argued that other admissions methods could have allowed the University to achieve a diverse student body, and that legacy admissions programs are not comparable to race-conscious admissions, because the Equal Protection Clause only regulates racial qualifications. Justice Thomas argued that this kind of race-conscious admissions was the equivalent of previously prevalent racism in admissions. He also argued that race-conscious admissions place a stigma on Black students and professionals, and places them in programs for which they were unprepared. Justice Thomas concluded by asserting that the Constitution is colorblind. Plessy v. Ferguson.


Justice Ginsburg

Justice Ginsburg argued that, given the current state of education inequity, it is uncertain that race-conscious admissions will eventually be unnecessary as the Court predicted.


Government use of racial classifications are reviewed under strict scrutiny. Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Pena. Strict scrutiny requires the government action to be narrowly tailored to further a compelling governmental interest.

The Court held that student body diversity was a compelling government interest. The Court deferred to the University’s judgment that diversity is necessary to its educational mission, and that the University was not engaging in prohibited “racial balancing.” If the school had been attempting to achieve specific percentages of certain racial groups simply because of their race, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, that would have been impermissible racial balancing. The Court cited the District Court opinion and amici curiae briefs that argued that diversity promotes cross-racial understanding, helps dismantle stereotypes, and promotes success in the globalized world beyond law school.

The Court also held that the University’s admissions program was narrowly tailored to the interest in student body diversity, because it involved a holistic, individualized review of applicants, and not a quota system. Bakke. The Court rejected the argument that the program was not narrowly tailored because race-neutral alternatives existed, holding that the University was not required to exhaust all other race-neutral options, and that the University sufficiently considered race-neutral options.  Finally, the Court reasserted its position that race-conscious admissions policies must eventually be eliminated, and stated its expectation that the University would no longer need to use race-conscious admissions in 25 years.

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