The US Supreme Court will hear an affirmative action case Tuesday to determine whether state referendums can ban race and sex as factors in university admissions.
In 2006, the US state of Michigan voted on a measure to disallow affirmative action in college admissions. The high court will now weigh in on whether the ban is constitutional, taking into account the US constitution’s equal protection guarantees.
The case comes on the heels of a high court decision just over three months ago concerning affirmative action at the University of Texas.
In that case, the justices elected not to rule on the constitutionality of using race and ethnicity in admission, instructing a lower court to take another look at the matter.
The decision left unchanged the principle of “affirmative action,” an enduring legacy of the 1960s civil rights movement originally meant to give African-Americans a leg up in applying for jobs and education to counter decades of racism.
On Tuesday, the top court will consider an appeal by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who wants the justices to uphold “Proposition 2,” adopted in 2006 but struck down by an appeals court.
The proposition, which became a constitutional amendment, prohibits Michigan’s public universities, colleges, and school districts from “discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment for any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin.”
But a coalition of groups backing affirmative action along with 17 former students argue the reform violates the US Constitution — specifically its provision on equal rights.
Brian Soucek, acting professor at the University of California, Davis School of Law, said repercussions from the court’s decision will be felt well beyond Michigan’s universities.
The biggest impact would likely occur in California, he said, because Michigan’s law was modeled on a similar one in California, voted on in 1996, which banned race, sex or ethnicity quotas in education and Californian government jobs.
“Schuette therefore still has enormous potential to affect the extent to which affirmative action is actually used,” Soucek wrote ahead of the proceedings.
Michigan is backed by Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma and Virginia in its push against affirmative action. The plaintiffs, meanwhile, have the support of several other states — including California.
Justice Elena Kagan, a progressive and former solicitor general, has recused herself from the case due to a conflict of interest linked to her previous professional functions.
This means the remaining eight justices on the prestigious panel — three progressives and five conservatives — will take up the matter. Their ruling is not expected before next year.