On April 22, 2014, the United States Supreme Court upheld the Michigan Constitutional amendment which prohibits in part the use of raced-based preferences in the admissions process for State of Michigan universities. Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, No. 12-682 (Apr. 22, 2014). The Michigan amendment also prohibited similar preferences by the State of Michigan in public employment, public education, or public contracting. The Court reversed the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals which had concluded that the amendment violated the Equal Protection Clause of the federal Constitution.
The Michigan amendment had been approved by Michigan voters in 2006 following two prior Supreme Court opinions which analyzed the constitutionality of race-based admissions criteria at the University of Michigan. In Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244 (2003), the Supreme Court held that the undergraduate admissions process violated the Equal Protection Clause, and in Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003), held that the law school’s admission process did not.
In Schuette, the Supreme Court did not analyze the constitutionality of race-conscious affirmative action admissions policies. Instead, the Court determined whether the state constitutional amendment prohibiting such preferences was lawful. A plurality of the Justices determined that the Michigan amendment was enforceable. Justice Sotomayor, along with Justice Ginsburg, filed a dissenting opinion.
Takeaway: This Supreme Court opinion did not hold that all affirmative action admission programs are unconstitutional, nor did it overrule any federal government contracting affirmative action obligations. Instead, the Schuette Court determined that the citizens of a state may amend a state’s constitution to prohibit certain state-based affirmative action programs. This decision may give rise to comparable efforts to amend constitutions in other states.