When Barbara Grutter (Plaintiff), a white Michigan resident with a 3.8 grade average and 161 LSAT score, was denied admission to the University of Michigan Law School (Defendant), she sued the latter in federal district court, alleging racial discrimination against her in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment on the basis of the law school’s (Defendant) direct consideration of race as a factor in the admissions process
Diversity is a compelling interest that can justify the narrowly tailored use of race when public universities select applicants for admission
The University of Michigan Law School (Defendant) receives more than 3,500 applications each year for a class of 350 students. The Law School’s (Defendant) admissions committee tried to achieve diversity in the student body by requiring admissions officials to evaluate each applicant based on all the information in the file, including a personal statement, letters of recommendation, a student’s essay, GPA score, LSAT score, as well as so-called “soft variables.” Plus, the admissions policy specifically stressed the Law School’s (Defendant) longstanding commitment to racial and ethical diversity. In this regard, the official admission policy noted that by enrolling a “critical mass” of underrepresented minority students, Defendant sought “to ensure their ability to make unique contributions to the character of the Law School.” When Barbara Grutter (Plaintiff), a white Michigan resident with a 3.8 grade average and 161 LSAT score, applied for admission but was denied, she sued the Law School (Defendant) in federal district court, claiming racial discrimination against her in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Following a 15-day bench trial, the district court upheld Plaintiff’s claim. The court of appeals reversed. Plaintiff appealed
Is diversity a compelling interest that can justify the narrowly tailored use of race when public universities select applicants for admission?
(O’Connor, J.) Yes. Diversity is a compelling interest that can justify the narrowly tailored use of race when public universities select applicants for admission. In this case, the Law School’s (Defendant) admissions program bears the hallmarks of a narrowly tailored plan. Truly individualized consideration demands that race be used in a flexible, non-mechanical way. It follows from this mandate that universities cannot establish quotas for members of certain racial groups or put members of those groups on separate admission tracks. Universities also cannot insulate applicants who belong to certain racial or ethnic groups from the competition for admission. However, as was done here, universities can consider race or ethnicity more flexibly as a “plus” factor in the context of individualized consideration of each and every applicant. The Law School’s (Defendant) goal of attaining a critical mass of underrepresented minority students does not transform its program into a quota. The evidence indicated that the Defendant engaged in a highly individualized, holistic review of each applicant’s file, giving serious consideration to all the ways an applicant might contribute to a “diverse educational environment.” In addition, evidence showed that the Defendant gives substantial weight to diversity factors besides race by frequently accepting nonminority applicants with grades and test scores lower than underrepresented minority applicants. There was no Law School (Defendant) policy, either de facto or de jure, of automatic acceptance or rejection based on any single “soft” variable. Narrow tailoring does not require exhaustion of every conceivable race-neutral alternative. It also does not require a university to choose between maintaining a reputation for excellence or fulfilling a commitment to provide educational opportunities to members of all racial groups. Affirmed.
Dissent: (Rehnquist, C.J.) The Law School’s (Defendant) means are not narrowly tailored to the interest it asserts. Stripped of its “critical mass” veil, the program is revealed as an obvious effort to achieve racial balancing. As the numbers demonstrate, the Defendant plainly employs racial preferences in extending offers of admission. It engages in precisely the type of racial balancing that the Court itself calls “patently unconstitutional.”
Dissent: (Kennedy, J.) The Law School (Defendant) has not demonstrated how individual consideration is, or can be, preserved at this stage of the application process given the instruction to attain what it calls critical mass.
Dissent: (Scalia, J.) Unlike a clear constitutional holding that racial preferences in state educational institutions are not permitted, or even a clear anticonstitutional holding, today’s decision seems willfully designed to prolong the controversy and the litigation. The Constitution proscribes government discrimination on the basis of race and state-provided education is no exception.
Dissent: (Thomas, J.) I believe blacks can achieve in every avenue of American life without the meddling of university administrators. The majority upholds the Law School’s (Defendant) racial discrimination not by interpreting the people’s Constitution, but by responding to a faddish slogan of the cognoscenti.
As shown in Grutter and predecessor Supreme Court decisions, not every decision influenced by race is equally objectionable, and “strict scrutiny” is designed to provide a framework for carefully examining the importance and the sincerity of the reasons advanced by the governmental decisionmaker for the use of race in any given context