What was the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action thinking?

April 22
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)

This morning the Supreme Court, to the surprise of no one, upheld the Michigan’s Proposal 2 against a constitutional challenge to its prohibition of race-based preferences in state university admissions. Any other result would have been stunning.  As I blogged back in November 2012, “my main question is how badly the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action loses.  My guess is that they get maybe two votes on the Supreme Court.”  They did get two votes, so they hit the high end of my expectations.

The title of this post is not meant as snark: I don’t understand the litigation strategy of those challenging the Michigan proposition.  Maybe the challengers thought that they couldn’t be effective political opponents of measures like Proposal 2 if they didn’t challenge Proposal 2 in court, but they could have said that their lawyers made it clear that any challenge would only make bad law in the current Supreme Court, and that they wanted to mobilize voters. Now, they are stuck with that loss in the Supreme Court, having spent a huge amount of time and effort in a doomed legal challenge.

Here’s what I said back in November 2012:

When Ted Olson and David Boies brought a challenge to California’s Proposition 8 against gay marriage, lots of gay marriage supporters said the litigation was a mistake, because it was too soon.  I don’t recall seeing the same pushback against this Michigan litigation (that is, I don’t recall advocates of affirmative action saying that this litigation was too soon).  I suspect the reason for this difference is that gay marriage advocates believe that time is on their side and affirmative action advocates don’t. But if the groups spearheading the Michigan litigation believe they’ll be in the same position, or in a weaker position, in the future, that still doesn’t explain bringing this litigation if they don’t think they’ll win in the Supreme Court.  So I’m guessing that the Michigan groups bringing this litigation think they will win in the Supreme Court, or they think that the litigation will bring them other benefits (like moving public opinion in their favor) that will outweigh the costs of losing in the Supreme Court.  I’ll take the bet against both propositions.

The first bet has played out as I, and everyone else, expected.  I will still take the second bet.  So why bring this case?

Stuart Benjamin is the Douglas B. Maggs Professor of Law, Associate Dean for Research, and co-director of the Center for Innovation Policy at Duke Law School. He specializes in telecommunications law, the First Amendment, and administrative law.
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