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Supreme Court briefs back affirmative action
MONDAY, MARCH 10, 2003

A diverse group of Indian interests has lent support to the University of Michigan in an affirmative action case that could have widespread implications for the education of Native American students throughout the country.

Eleven federally recognized tribes, one inter-tribal organization, a Native student's law group and a state Indian bar association are among the hundreds jockeying for the Supreme Court's attention in one of the most high-profile disputes of the current term. Not since the justices last considered the issue more than 20 years ago has a case received so many friend of the court briefs.

At issue is whether the university's undergraduate and law school admissions policies are unconstitutional. According to opponents, including President Bush, minority applicants get an extra boost based solely on their race or ethnicity.

The tribes, ten in Michigan and one in Wisconsin, argue that the university, a public institution, has a legally-vested interest to educate Native students. In the 1817 Treaty of Fort Meigs, the tribes ceded land specifically to the school's predecessor, the amicus brief notes. The tribes also cite a 1934 federal-state agreement in which Michigan promises to "educate Native Americans within the state in its public schools, without cost to the federal government."

"Even if the consideration of Native American status were afforded the strictest scrutiny, the university's program would be constitutional," the tribes state.

The University of Michigan Native American Law Students Association and three minority student groups make diversity a central point of their amicus brief. Calling race a "a salient social force throughout our nation's history," the students say they serve an important school function that should be protected.

"We educate the university community through symposia and panel discussions on issues such as the death penalty, environmental justice, tribal courts, hate crimes, post 9/11 immigration issues and racial profiling, as well as through events such as the annual American Indian Law Day, which highlights current tribal and federal Indian law issues facing Indian tribes," the brief argues.

The New Mexico Indian Bar Association and two other minority bar organizations say their membership has benefited from affirmative action policies. Were the Supreme Court to strike them down, the state -- whose minorities, when combined, are actually the majority of the population -- would lose a "compelling and constitutionally valid interest in assuring competent legal services for underserved populations," according to the brief.

"The problems of poverty, limited access to medical, legal and other services as well as high drop-out rates afflict, at even higher rates than other racial groups, the Native American members of the state's twenty-two Indian nations," the organizations write.

Without affirmative action, the University of Michigan says its minority enrollment will fall considerably. According to figures from 2000, the law school offered admission to nearly half of Native American applicants. This was the highest rate of any racial or ethnic group.

Overall, the law school's 35 percent minority population would have dropped to 10 percent in that year without affirmative action, the school says.

Native Americans currently make up about 1 percent of the student body according to university statistics.

Oral arguments in Grutter v. Bollinger, No. 02-241, and Gratz v. Bollinger, No. 02-516, will be heard on April 1. The plaintiffs are three white students who were denied entry to the University of Michigan undergraduate and law school programs.

Amicus Briefs:
Tribes in Michigan and Wisconsin | U-Mich minority student law associations | New Mexico minority bar associations

Relevant Documents:
Supreme Court Docket Sheet No. 02-241 | Brief: Grutter | Brief: University of Michigan | Brief: Department of Justice

Holdings Below:
Appeals Court: GRUTTER v. BOLLINGER, No. 01-1447, 01-1516 (May 14, 2002) | District Court: GRUTTER v. BOLLINGER (March 27, 2001)

Relevant Links:
University of Michigan, Admissions site - http://www.umich.edu/~urel/admissions
Center for Individual Rights - http://www.cir-usa.org

Related Stories:
Opinion: Bush, the affirmative action baby (01/24)
Powell, Rice support use of race in admissions (01/21)
Olson pressed for tougher school admission brief (01/17)
Bush enters affirmative action debate (1/16)
Affirmative action brief 'narrowly' tailored (1/16)
Bush to oppose college affirmative action policy (1/15)
Bush to submit brief in affirmative action case (1/14)
Affirmative action challenge accepted (12/03)
Affirmative action program struck down (8/28)
Court declines affirmative action case (6/26)
Affirmative action battle far from over (6/1)
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Affirmative action faces court test (5/21)
School regents repeal race-based ban (5/17)
Judge strikes down affirmative action (3/28)
Tribes exempt from anti-affirmative action (3/28)
Supremes to rule on affirmative action (3/27)
Affirmative action upheld (12/14)
Court upholds affirmative action (12/5)
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