Plaintiff’s life defined by high court ruling in 2003 affirmative action case

She tried. Oh, she tried.

Jennifer Gratz skittered onto the corporate career track. But, nah.

She fiddled around with a political accountability project, trying to make candidates keep their promises once they got elected. But it didn’t really move her.

Gratz, 35, kept coming back to the defining spark of her life: her role as the plaintiff in a 2003 Supreme Court case challenging affirmative action in college admissions. It was the ruling in her case — combined with another ruling issued the same day — that cleared the way for colleges to continue using affirmative action in admissions.

And that’s what she could never accept. “I have a one-track mind,” she says in an interview.

With a 7-1 vote, the Supreme Court told a lower court to carefully review the University of Texas’s race-conscious admissions plan. Bob Barnes explains that and other news out of the court Monday. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

Her marquee turn stands out in bas-relief on moments such as Monday morning, when the Supreme Court once again delved into affirmative action in college applications, ordering a lower court to take a tougher look at how the University of Texas uses race in admissions decisions. The high court’s anti-climactic decision was issued in the case of Abigail Fisher, a white student who challenged the University of Texas policy that allows administrators to consider race as one of the factors in deciding who is admitted. Fisher says she was discriminated against when her 2008 application was rejected.

Gratz called the court’s decision merely “a slap on the hand” for the University of Texas, which had asked the justices to uphold its admissions policy. “The battle goes on,” Gratz said in an interview moments after the decision.

This is what happens when an American life meets an American legal precedent.

A name becomes more than just a name. Gratz becomes synonymous with an idea. Not Jen Gratz, the girl from the Detroit suburbs. But Gratz, of Gratz v. Bollinger, the student against the school president, Lee Bollinger. And even Monday, as the court revisited affirmative action, there was her name again, mentioned in the very first paragraph of the headnote of the court’s ruling in the Fisher case.

For Gratz, it all started one day in the summer of 1997, when she came home to the Detroit suburbs from the Michigan summer camp where she’d been working. Her father had spotted a newspaper article about the use of affirmative action in University of Michigan admissions. He brought it up casually, Gratz recalls. He thought his daughter, who is white, had moved on from the pain of being rejected by the university two years earlier.

Wow, was he wrong.

Gratz, then 18, chased down the author of the article. She dug up contact numbers. She called lawyers and state representatives. She had to do something.

She fell in with attorneys who had been challenging affirmative action policies. “I thought I’d end up stuffing envelopes,” she recalls. She ended up becoming their star plaintiff.

While Gratz worked on a math degree at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, her real passions were directed toward her lawsuit. On campus, all her professors knew that she was at the center of a major legal fight — the camera crews that trailed her around the school might have been a tip-off.

There was a lower-court win, but on June 23, 2003 — almost exactly a decade ago — the Supreme Court had its say. And what it said filled her with pique.

Gratz was the winner, whose cause ended up being the loser. The court sided with Gratz, saying that she’d been discriminated against because the University of Michigan’s system of assigning bonus points in its ranking to minority applicants was too “mechanistic.” But Gratz’s case got lumped with another case — filed by Barbara Grutter, an applicant to the university’s law school.

In Grutter’s case, the high court endorsed the use of affirmative action to achieve a “critical mass” of minority-student enrollment. The sum result of Gratz’s and Grutter’s cases amounted to an emphatic endorsement of affirmative action in admissions. The decisions were huge. They not only reaffirmed the use of affirmative action — which had flourished in the quarter-century since the Supreme Court ruled against a rejected white applicant, Allan Bakke, who had sued the regents of the University of California — but also expanded the conditions under which race could be considered.

The defeat rankled Grutter. Two months later, an impassioned column Grutter wrote was published in the National Review Online. In the piece, she called the ruling “neither wise nor just.”

By the time the court had ruled in their cases, Gratz had gotten married, moved to San Diego and launched her career as a computer software expert. Her wedding was just six months before the Supreme Court’s ruling, and she decided to keep her maiden name rather than put her attorneys through the considerable trouble of filing paperwork to reflect a name change. Later, once her name became associated with ballot campaigns against racial preferences in school admissions and government hiring, it made practical sense to retain the familiar moniker. To this day, she says, people sometimes unknowingly call her husband “Mr. Gratz.”

“He barely tolerates it,” she says with a giggle. “Kind of like the Supreme Court with racial preferences. How’s that for tying it all together?”

She never anticipated this cause becoming her life. But it had.

In the days after the court ruled in 2003, the sting of the decision was too much. She told her husband that she was quitting her job and going back to Michigan to work on the issue that consumed her so. Gratz was soon jetting around the country, pushing for state ballot initiatives to accomplish what her lawsuit could not.

She helped win victories in a handful of states, reducing race and gender preferences in education, employment and contracting. From time to time, someone would approach her about running for office. In 2007, she says, a big wheel in Michigan’s Republican Party even gauged her interest in running for the U.S. Senate. Nah, she thought. She’d seen how ugly politics could get.

Even when she thought she’d just blend in, when it felt as if the years had wiped her name from the collective consciousness, her notoriety would follow her. She’d meet an attorney or an activist, and there would be a double-take. “Gratz, Gratz,” people would say. “Why do I know that name?” It happened just a few days ago at a cocktail party in Naples, Fla., where a friend introduced her to another guest. She saw that familiar look on his face, that instant when she could tell he was scrolling through reference points in his mind. “Gratz!” he exclaimed. “As in Gratz versus Bollinger?”

“I turn a little pink,” she says.

In the end, though, it wasn’t those bursts of recognition that have steered her. It’s what she recognizes about herself: Affirmative action is her thing. Last year, she set in motion a group to push the issue further, the XIV Foundation, named for the 14th Amendment.

“Universities will hold on to these decisions for as long as they are comfortable,” Gratz says. “Our side has to find ways to make it uncomfortable for university administrators to socially engineer their campuses based on race.”

She’s planning projects related to next year’s 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. “I believe the dream of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was colorblind government,” she says. “I’m not sure we’re on the right path to truly colorblind government.”

It will be easy for her to figure out how to celebrate her victories in years to come: with something cold. She and her husband just opened a new business near their home in southwest Florida: a microbrewery.

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