The University of Michigan Law School concluded that a diverse student body was a worthy goal that benefited all students. It, therefore, decided to institute a plan that sought to grant admission to a “critical mass” of qualified minority students. This meant that some white students would be denied admission even though they had higher grades and test scores. Race (for African-Americans) or ethnicity (for Hispanics and Native Americans) was thus one factor that was considered in evaluating candidates for admission, but it was not decisive and was by no means the only factor considered. The Law School’s admissions committee considered many other factors: an applicant’s LSAT score, undergraduate GPA, enthusiasm of recommenders, quality of the undergraduate institution, quality of the essay written for admission, residency, leadership and work experience, unique talents or interests, and difficulty of undergraduate course selection. In addition, students were sometimes admitted if there was a combination of poor performance on standardized tests but consistently outstanding academic records. No seats in the entering law school class were reserved or set aside for minority students. The stated goal of the Law School’s admissions procedure was “to admit a group of students who individually and collectively are among the most capable students applying to American law schools in a given year.
In 1996, Barbara Grutter, a 43-year-old single mother, applied for admission to the University of Michigan Law School. Grutter was Caucasian and had a 3.8 undergraduate GPA and a score on the LSAT that placed her nationally in the 86th percentile. After several months of being placed on a “wait list,” she was notified that her application for admission had been denied. She then filed a class action suit in a U.S. District Court, claiming that she was denied admission because minority students were given preferential treatment. The District Court ruled for Grutter and concluded that “the university’s use of race as a factor in its admissions decisions was unconstitutional and a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” It enjoined the law school from continuing to use race in its admissions decisions. The law school appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit which overturned the lower court’s judgment. This court reasoned that the law school had tailored its admissions procedure in compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1978 ruling in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, which at the time was the controlling legal precedent on this issue in the nation. Grutter now appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Court considered the following question:
Does the use of race as one factor that a state university’s law school considers when it decides which students to admit violate the equal protection of the law clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution or the Civil Rights Act of 1964?
The U.S. Supreme Court by a 5-4 vote upheld the University of Michigan Law School’s admissions procedure. On the same day, in a separate case, Gratz v. Bollinger, by a 6-3 vote, the Court struck down a different admissions process being used by the University of Michigan’s undergraduate school.
In Grutter, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote the opinion for the majority. She pointed out that “context matters when reviewing race-based governmental action” and that “not every decision influenced by race is equally objectionable.” She added that “we have never held that the only governmental use of race that can survive strict scrutiny is remedying past discrimination.” She then noted that although “outright racial balancing” is “patently unconstitutional,” the law school’s “good faith” pursuit of classroom diversity was entitled to “deference.” She also accepted the law school’s argument that admitting “a critical mass” of minority students was essential to achieving student diversity and “the educational benefits that diversity is designed to produce.”
Although admitting enough minority students was essential to achieving “a critical mass,” O’Connor emphasized that, in the majority’s opinion, this did not amount to imposing a quota because it did not set aside a fixed number or percentage of class positions. Finally, she pointed out that “the law school engages in a highly individualized, holistic review of each applicant’s file in which race counts as a factor but is not used in a mechanical way.” For that reason, she stated, the law school’s policy was consistent with Justice Lewis F. Powell’s controlling opinion in Bakke in 1978 where the Court permitted the use of race as “one plus factor.”
Chief Justice William Rehnquist, joined by Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy, wrote the principal dissenting opinion. Rehnquist wrote that he did not believe that the law school’s admission process was “narrowly tailored to the interest it asserts,” namely achieving “a critical mass” of minorities. “Stripped of its ‘critical mass’ veil,” he stated, “the law school’s program is revealed as a naked effort to achieve racial balancing.” He concluded by writing that, in the opinion of the dissenting justices, the law school had set up its admissions process not to achieve “a critical mass” but to admit minority students “in proportion to their statistical representation in the applicant pool.” This, he emphasized, “is precisely the type of racial balancing that the Court itself calls ‘patently unconstitutional.’ ”