Making sense of the Supreme Court’s Michigan affirmative action decision

April 22, 2014
On a 6-2 vote, the Supreme Court rejects a challenge to a voter-approved Michigan law that bans the practice of affirmative action for college admissions. (Reuters)

The Supreme Court’s issued a splintered decision in Schuette v. BAMN that will take some time to sort out.  While six of the justices voted to uphold the constitutionality of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, the Court split 4-4 over whether this result was compatible with the Court’s political process precedents.  While Justices Kennedy, Alito, Breyer and the Chief Justice appear to believe today’s decision can be reconciled with prior cases in which the Court had looked skeptically at state actions, such as ballot initiatives, that made it more difficult for minority groups to seek benefits through the political process, neither the dissenters nor Justices Scalia and Thomas shared this view.  Indeed, Justice Scalia, joined by Thomas, called for overturning these precedents outright.  Were that not messy enough, Justice Breyer made clear his opinion was limited to the prohibition of the use of race in university admissions for purposes of enhancing diversity.  The lack of a clear holding and split over the political process precedents will create difficult work for lower courts trying to make sense of today’s opinion should the need arise in subsequent cases.

Jonathan H. Adler teaches courses in constitutional, administrative, and environmental law at the Case Western University School of Law, where he is the inaugural Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation.
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