Supreme Court Will Review Michigan’s Affirmative Action Ban

Ward Connerly, chairman of the American Civil Rights Coalition, second from right, joined Michigan lawmakers and faced protesters in 2003 as he promoted a ballot initiative to ban affirmative action. Michigan voters approved the measure three years later, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Monday (March 25) to review it. (AP)

The nation’s highest court will decide whether a Michigan affirmative action ban passed by voters in 2006 can prevent colleges and universities from using race when they decide which students to admit.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s announcement Monday (March 25) comes as the justices are considering another affirmative action case from Texas. But the Michigan case gives the court an opportunity to review a more clear-cut policy. Texas severely restricts how race can be used in college admissions, but Michigan law, known as Proposal 2, bans it outright.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican, urged the justices to take up the case, after a lower court struck down Proposal 2.

“Michigan recognizes that affirmative action has long been controversial; some state entities use it for some programs, some do not. But until now, no court has ever held that, apart from remedying specific past discrimination, a government must engage in affirmative action,” Schuette wrote to the justices.

A federal appeals court based in Cincinnati overturned Proposal 2, as it applies to colleges and universities. In an 8-7 ruling, the judges said the affirmative action ban was unconstitutional, because it could prevent minorities from attending college without giving them any way to appeal that policy.

The barriers to change the policy were too high, the court ruled. “Proponents of Proposal 2 … removed the authority to institute racially focused policies from Michigan’s universities and lodged it at the most remote level of Michigan's government, the state constitution,” the appeals court wrote.

Michigan is one of eight states to completely block universities from considering race in admissions. Arizona, California, Florida, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Washington state are the others. Ward Connerly, a former regent of the University of California, pushed for many of those bans, including Michigan’s.

Four Republican state attorneys general (from Arizona, Alabama, Georgia and Oklahoma) backed Michigan’s bid to have the high court hear the appeal.

The University of Michigan was also at the center of a pair of 2003 Supreme Court cases that banned universities from using racial quotas in admissions but let them take the race of individual applicants into account. At the time, then-Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that she hoped affirmative action would not be needed in 25 years.

The high court is expected to issue a ruling in the Texas affirmative action case by the end of June. It will take up the Michigan case in its next term, which starts in October.

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