Michigan's ban on affirmative action upheld by Supreme Court By Bill Mears

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 4/22/2014, 2:45 p.m.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld a Michigan law banning the use of racial criteria in college admissions, a key ...
Cherry blossom trees bloom on the grounds of the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, March 28, 2011

CNN Supreme Court Producer

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld a Michigan law banning the use of racial criteria in college admissions, a key decision in an unfolding legal and political battle nationally over affirmative action.

The justices found 6-2 that a lower court did not have the authority to set aside the measure approved in a 2006 referendum supported by 58% of voters.

It bars publicly funded colleges from granting "preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin."

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court's first Latina, reacted sharply to the decision.

"For members of historically marginalized groups, which rely on the federal courts to protect their constitutional rights, the decision can hardly bolster hope for a vision of democracy that preserves for all the right to participate meaningfully and equally in self-government," Sotomayor wrote.

But three justices in the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito. concluded that the lower court did not have the authority to set aside the law.

"This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved. It is about who may resolve it," Kennedy wrote.

Justices Antonin Scalia, Stephen Breyer and Clarence Thomas voted in the majority as part of concurring opinions.

Sotomayor and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, and Justice Elena Kagan took no part in the case.

The latest step

The decision was the latest step in a legal and political battle over whether state colleges can use race and gender as a factor in choosing what students to admit.

The debate in recent years has centered around whether and when affirmative action programs -- while constitutionally permissible now -- would eventually have to be phased out as the goal of obtaining diversity is met.

Last year, the court affirmed the use of race at the University of Texas, but made it harder for institutions to justify such policies to achieve diversity.

In that dispute, a white student said the college's existing affirmative action policy violated her "equal protection" rights. Civil rights supporters of such programs claim Michigan's ban also has the same effect, and a federal appeals court agreed.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that while state universities could use race as a factor in choosing which students to admit, they could not make race the determining factor in deciding whether applicants are accepted.

Michigan has said minority enrollment at its flagship university, the University of Michigan, has not gone down since the measure was passed.

Civil rights groups dispute those figures and say other states have seen fewer African-American and Hispanic students attending highly competitive schools, especially in graduate level fields like law, medicine, and science.

"Students deserve a robust education where a variety of viewpoints are shared and debated," said Professor Kevin Gaines of the University of Michigan, one of the original plaintiffs. "Proposal 2 has meant less diversity in our universities, which has had a chilling effect on the quality of discourse in the classroom. Unfortunately, that will continue, at least for the time being, in Michigan."