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Supreme Court Split on Colleges' Racial Discrimination

Monday, 23 June 2003 12:00 AM

Race can be one of many factors that colleges consider when selecting students, said the first decision, a 5-4 ruling written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

However, the court struck down the University of Michigan's undergraduate policy that discriminated against white, Oriental and Arab students by automatically awarding 20 extra points to blacks, Latinos and American Indians just for existing. Top students who earned perfect scores on admissions tests received only 12 of 100 points needed for entry.

The school has even "flagged" applications from favored minorities to enable an applicant to stay in the pool even if he failed an initial review.

The White House had weighed filed legal briefs opposing the undergraduate policy. Many leftist groups had filed briefs supporting the racial discrimination.

The first ruling concerned UM's law school, whose admission policy is engineered to ensure a "critical mass" of minority students. The program is not an illegal quota, the high court's narrow majority insisted.

Government has a compelling interest in promoting racial diversity on campus, and the law school's plan is narrowly focused on that goal, the 5-4 majority said.

"The Equal Protection Clause does not prohibit the law school's narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body," O'Connor wrote.

Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer joined O'Connor.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas dissented.

Although the Constitution guarantees equal protection under the law, the ruling allows taxpayer-supported schools to continue subtly discriminatory policies. The decision is expected to have a profound effect as well in private schools, government, business and other institutions.

More blatantly prejudiced policies, however, such as the undergraduate system at UM, are a different matter. A 6-3 decision written by Rehnquist recognized this system as an unconstitutional racial quota.

"The university's policy, which automatically distributes 20 points, or one-fifth of the points needed to guarantee admission, to every single underrepresented minority applicant solely because of race, is not narrowly tailored to achieve the interest in educational diversity," Rehnquist wrote.

O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Breyer agreed. Stevens, Souter and Ginsburg dissented.

"Today's decisions seek a careful balance between the goal of campus diversity and the fundamental principle of equal treatment under the law," President Bush said in a statement "applauding" the rulings.

"The court has made clear that colleges and universities must engage in a serious, good faith consideration of workable race-neutral alternatives. I agree that we must look first to these race-neutral approaches to make campuses more welcoming for all students."

The court "should be ashamed of itself," said Abigail Thernstrom, a Republican member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. "We have just signed on to quotas for the foreseeable future for decades to come. We're going to have race-driven decision making from now on with the moral legitimacy of the court. It's disgusting."

"The majority opinion is impressive in how it can contort the plain and unambiguous language of the 14th Amendment into a license to discriminate, albeit carefully," said colleague Peter Kirsanow.

"Every conservative I've spoken to, and those who aren't trying to spin, are sourly disappointed with this."

The two rulings follow the lead set by the Supreme Court in the 1970s, when it outlawed quotas but said schools could show favoritism to underrepresented racial minorities.

The law school case is Grutter v. Bollinger, 02-241. The undergraduate case is Gratz v. Bollinger, 02-516.

The Democrats vying for the 2004 presidential nomination have vowed to support racial quotas regardless of the Supreme Court's decisions.

"When I'm president, we'll do executive orders to overcome any wrong thing the Supreme Court does tomorrow or any other day," Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., said Sunday in Chicago at a Democrat forum sponsored by Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, threatened that if elected he would put racial quotas into federal law.

"The president has divided us. He's divided us by race by using the word 'quotas.' There's no such thing as a quota at the University of Michigan, never has been," claimed former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

Democrats should talk not about getting more blacks into high places, but about getting "the right blacks," according to Al Shaprton. "Clarence Thomas is my color, but he's not my kind," complained Sharpton.

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Race can be one of many factors that colleges consider when selectingstudents, said the first decision, a 5-4 ruling written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. However, the court struck down the University of Michigan's undergraduate policy that discriminated against...
Monday, 23 June 2003 12:00 AM
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