Supreme Court rules in favor of state affirmative action bans

Carlos Caceres/Staff

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the rights of voters to ban the consideration of race from public university admissions Tuesday in a decision that affirmed California’s hotly contested race-blind admissions process.

The case considered Michigan’s Proposal 2, a ballot initiative passed in 2006 banning the consideration of race in admission to state-funded institutions. In 1996, California passed a similar measure, Proposition 209, which led to a dramatic drop in minority representation on UC campuses that has persisted to the present day.

The court’s ruling, a 6-2 split, overturned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit’s decision, which had deemed Proposal 2 unconstitutional in November 2012. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented. Justice Elena Kagan was recused.

“Were the court to rule that the question addressed by Michigan voters is too sensitive or complex to be within the grasp of the electorate … That holding would be an unprecedented restriction on the exercise of a fundamental right held not just by one person but by all in common,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in his opinion. “It is the right to speak and debate and learn and then, as a matter of political will, to act through a lawful electoral process.”

In late August, the University of California filed a “friend of the court” brief urging the Supreme Court to strike down Proposal 2.

The UC admission rate for underrepresented minority students dropped from 54.6 percent to 20.2 percent between 1995 and 1998, according to UC data. The university has never recovered these numbers. While UC Berkeley increased the number of resident Hispanic and Latino admitted students in 2014, African American representation dropped as a proportion of the total resident admits from 3.6 percent in 2013 to 3.4 percent in 2014. American Indian resident admission remained at 0.7 percent.

Sotomayor cited the UC system’s struggle to maintain diversity under race-blind policies in her dissent, claiming that the majority decision discriminates against minority groups by denying them the opportunity to advocate race-sensitive admissions policies.

“While our Constitution does not guarantee minority groups victory in the political process, it does guarantee them meaningful and equal access to that process,” she wrote in her dissent. “It guarantees that the majority may not win by stacking the political process against minority groups permanently, forcing the minority alone to surmount unique obstacles in pursuit of its goals.”

Sotomayor referenced the brief filed by former UC president Mark Yudof and the system’s 10 chancellors in her dissent.

“The abandonment of race-conscious admissions policies resulted in an immediate and precipitous decline in the rates at which underrepresented-minority students applied to, were admitted to, and enrolled at (the University of California),” they wrote in the brief.

The case, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, follows significant effort to overturn Prop. 209 in California this year. State legislators attempted to put affirmative action on the November ballot in the form of a constitutional amendment, Senate Constitutional Amendment 5, but failed to garner enough support.

Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, who authored SCA 5, painted the court’s decision as an opportunity for Californians to stand against race-blind admissions.

“The Supreme Court’s decision today upholds the idea that the people should decide whether race-conscious programs should be allowed,” Hernandez said in a statement. “From the beginning, my intention for introducing Senate Constitutional Amendment 5 (SCA 5) has been to allow the voters of California that choice.”

At UC Berkeley, underrepresented students made up 14.6 percent of the incoming freshman class in 2013. Organizers with BAMN, an activist group and plaintiff in the case, said these numbers are far too low and criticized the court’s ruling.

Yvette Felarca, a BAMN organizer, said the coalition will now be focusing efforts on helping minority students appeal their rejections from UC schools. She expressed disappointment in UC Berkeley’s recently released admissions data, which admitted fewer students overall due to an expanded waitlist.

“The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision is a racist decision,” said BAMN attorney Ronald Cruz. “It gives states a green light to discriminate.”

The court’s decision has implications not only for UC admissions but also for campus climate, according to UC Berkeley’s Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion Gibor Basri.  systemwide campus climate survey, released last month, revealed a high correlation between the population size of groups on campuses and the amount the members of those groups feel respected. Because of this, Basri emphasized the importance of a critical mass of minority students at UC campuses — a feat Prop. 209 can make difficult.

“It is the biggest impediment to us serving the state population more evenly,” Basri said.

Libby Rainey is the lead higher education reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @rainey_l.