Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244; 123 S. Ct. 2411; 155 L. Ed. 2d 510 (2003)

Facts—Gratz and another petitioner, Hamacher, both white, applied to the University of Michigan’s undergraduate college in 1995 and 1997. Although “well qualified,” both were rejected. The university used a system of points, 100 (out of 150) of which were needed to guarantee admission. The school automatically gave members of racial minorities twenty such points in order to promote diversity. Gratz and Hamacher subsequently filed a class action suit arguing that the university admission program violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The U.S. District Court accepted the petitioners’ class action status and ruled that race could serve as a compelling state interest but found this program was not narrowly tailored to this interest. The U.S. Supreme Court consolidated this case with Grutter v. Bollinger, a decision in which the Cir- cuit Court had upheld use of racial considerations in law school admissions at the University of Michigan, prior to a Circuit Court decision.

Question—Does a public university’s admission system that automatically awards twenty of a needed one hundred points required for undergraduate admission to underrepresented racial minorities violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and federal statutes?


ReasonsC.J. Rehnquist (6–3). The admissions system at the University of Michigan had undergone a number of significant changes, but it included a system whereby underrepresented racial minorities were awarded twenty points not available to others. After reviewing the similarities between this case and Grutter v. Bollinger, Rehnquist concluded that the petitioners had standing. Rehnquist further reasoned that all racial classifications are subject to strict scrutiny under the equal protection clause. This, in turn, requires that programs utilizing such classifications must be “narrowly tailored” to “further compelling governmental interests.” Citing the Bakke decision (1978), Rehnquist argued that such narrow tailoring required “individualized consideration” of applicants that the Michigan undergraduate program did not provide when it automatically awarded underrepresented racial minorities 20 out of 150 total points. The program therefore violates both the Constitution and federal statutes.

J. O’Connor, concurring, agreed that the Michigan system did not provide adequate individualized review. J. Thomas, concurring in striking the program, would have held “that a State’s use of racial discrimination in higher education admissions is categorically prohibited by the Equal Protection Clause.” J. Breyer’s concurrence largely agreed with that of O’Connor.

J. Stevens’s dissent denied that the petitioners had standing. J. Souter’s dissent also argued that standing was lacking. Souter went on to argue that there was nothing unique about awarding points on the basis of race, since other factors, like athletic ability and socioeconomic disadvantage, also qualified individuals for points. Souter argued that racial diversity was important, and he did not believe that the twenty points that Michigan had awarded transformed race into a decisive factor. Indeed, he thought it was “especially unfair to treat the candor of the admissions plan as an Achilles’ heel.” J. Ginsburg’s dissent further argued that “government decision makers may properly distinguish between policies of exclusion and inclusion.” In this case, there was no evidence that the university was attempting to discriminate against a race or to reserve seats simply on the basis of color.

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