Supreme Court endorses diversity in college admissions
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TUESDAY, JUNE 24, 2003

The Supreme Court on Monday upheld the use of race in college admissions in two narrow rulings that have implications for Native American students nationwide.

By a vote of 6-3, the justices struck down the University of Michigan's undergraduate admission policy. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said the use of a point-based system, in which minority applicants are given a boost based on their race or ethnicity, violated the U.S. Constitution.

"The only consideration that accompanies this distribution of points is a factual review of an application to determine whether an individual is a member of one of these minority groups," Rehnquist wrote.

At the same time, the court upheld the law school's admission policy, which doesn't use a point system. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor authored the 5-4 opinion, endorsing a "compelling state interest" to ensure diversity at public institutions. As it turned out, she ended up providing the crucial swing vote in two decisions that were among the most eagerly-anticipated of the current term.

"In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity," wrote O'Connor, who was joined by the court's four liberal-leaning justices.

Neither ruling directly addressed an issue raised by 11 tribes in Michigan and Wisconsin in an amicus brief and by Justice John Paul Stevens at oral argument. The tribe cited promises made to their ancestors by the 1837 Treaty of Fort Meigs, which ceded land on which the school's predecessor was built.

Colette Routel, an attorney whose Minneapolis, Minnesota, law firm drafted the brief for the tribes, called the decision a victory for Indian Country. She said the court has given "clear direction" to universities to develop admission policies that will increase the number of Native American students.

"That's what the Michigan tribes were thinking of when they signed the Treaty of Fort Meigs," Routel said in an interview yesterday. "They were protecting the right to ensure their children receive an education. I think this decision allows that to happen."

University officials also hailed the ruling as an important victory. "This is a resounding affirmation that will be heard across the land -- from our college classrooms to our corporate boardrooms," said president Mary Sue Coleman in a statement. She added that the school will modify its undergraduate system to fit within the contours set out by the court.

The Bush administration praised the decisions as well, despite asking the court to invalidate both policies as unconstitutional. "There are innovative and proven ways for colleges and universities to reflect our diversity without using racial quotas," President Bush said in a statement.

Both cases were brought by the Center for Individual Rights, a conservative legal foundation. Four white students who were denied entry into the law school and undergraduate school say they were the victims of discrimination.

According to school statistics, nearly half of all Native American applicants to the law school are granted admission. In 2000, for example, 14 out of 35 Native students, or 1.1 percent of the applicant pool, were admitted.

At the undergraduate level, Native Americans currently make up about 1 percent of the student body.

The law school case is Grutter v. Bollinger, No. 02-241. The undergraduate case is Gratz v. Bollinger, No. 02-516.

Get the Decision:
Grutter v. Bollinger | Gratz v. Bollinger

Oral Arguments:
MP3: Excerpt | Transcript: Grutter v. Bollinger | Transcript: Gratz v. Bollinger | Real Audio: Both Hearings

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 -
Center for Individual Rights -

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