Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265; 98 S. Ct. 2733; 57 L. Ed. 2d 750 (1978)

Facts—Allan Bakke, a white male, twice applied (1973–1974) to the Medical School of the University of California at Davis. Despite strong “bench marks” (interviewers’ summaries, overall grade point average, science courses grade point, MCAT scores, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, and other biographical data), he was rejected. Davis had two admissions programs for its entering class of one hundred students, the regular and the special admissions program. The special admissions program set aside sixteen seats in each class for various racial minority groups who did not compete with the eighty-four other applicants (who competed against one another) and who were not required to meet the grade point average of regular nonminority applicants. Bakke’s overall scores were significantly higher than the special applicants. He claimed that the Davis “quota system” violated the California Constitution, the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Supreme Court of California agreed.

Questions—(a) Is the admissions program of the University of California at Davis that set aside sixteen class positions for minority students unlawful? (b) Are considerations of race in admissions programs always unlawful?

Decisions—(a) Yes; (b) No. Note: J. Powell voted with one majority on question a and voted again with another majority on question b.

ReasonsJ. Powell (5–4). “When a classification denies an individual opportunities or benefits enjoyed by others solely because of his race or ethnic background, it must be regarded as suspect. The Davis admissions program of explicit racial classification has never been countenanced by this court.” It tells applicants who are not “minorities” that no matter how superior or strong their qualifications, they will never be allowed the chance to compete for admission with all the other applicants. Racial and ethnic classifications are inherently suspect and call for exacting judicial scrutiny. The Davis program operated as a racial quota and is invalidated. But Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prescribes only those racial classifications that would violate the equal protection clause if employed by a state or its agencies. The California Supreme Court erred in holding that race can never be considered in evaluating an applicant, for the “state has a substantial interest that legitimately may be served by a properly devised admissions program involving the competitive consideration of race and ethnic origin.” Powell stressed that race, like considerations of other individual characteristics, could serve as a “plus” in diversifying campuses.

J. Brennan led the justices who would have permitted not only considerations of race but the use of quotas to achieve diversity. The use of race in this case did not stigmatize those like Bakke who were rejected and did serve the worthy purpose of providing representation in the medical profession for racial minorities.

J. Stevens led those justices who thought that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it clear that Congress did not intend to approve considerations of race.

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