Affirmative Action Court Decisions

Affirmative Action: Court Decisions

NCSL Education Program

Additional Affirmative Action Information

June 2013

Current Case

Fisher v. Texas

In 2008, several high school seniors who had been denied admission at the University of Texas-Austin filed a lawsuit. The students argued that the University of Texas could not use race as a factor in admission processes if there were other race-neutral options that would have the same results on diversity. A federal district judge found in favor of the University of Texas, stating that the University had complied with the admission requirements laid out in Grutter v. Bollinger. Additionally, the court cited a University of Texas study from 2002, which found that that year 79 percent of the university's individual courses had zero or one African-American students and 30 percent of the courses had zero or one Hispanic students. Thus, the court decided that while race neutral options had been considered, these options were not a viable way for the University of Texas system to maintain and increase diversity. In January 2011, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case and upheld the ruling in favor of the University of Texas. In June 2011, the full court decided not to rehear the lawsuit, letting the decision of the three-member panel stand. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in February 2012.

In a 7-1 ruling released June 2013, the Court did not overturn affirmative action generally, but did emphasize that affirmative action programs need to be more strictly reviewed. The Court explained that the program must pass a test of "strict scrutiny," proving an absence of alternatives that do not include race as a means to diversify the student body. The case is being sent back to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in order to determine if the University of Texas' affirmative action program passes this test. 

History Overview

In the 1978 case, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that using racial quotas in college admission decisions violated the Equal Protection Clause. The Equal Protection Clause, included in the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, affirms that "no state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." While this landmark decision eliminated racial quotas, it did allow race to be considered as one of many admission factors for the purpose of achieving a diverse student body.

In a direct challenge to the Bakke decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in the 1996 Hopwood v. Texas case that race could not be a factor in admission decisions. The defendant, the state of Texas, appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, but the appeal was refused. Similarly, in the 2001 Johnson v. University of Georgia case, the U.S. Court of Appeals held that the university's admission policy, which used race as a factor in admission decisions, violated the Equal Protection Clause. The court ruled that adding a fixed number of points to the admission score of every non-white applicant is not an appropriate mechanism for achieving diversity. 

In 1995 and 1996, two lawsuits challenged the constitutionality of using race in the admission processes at the University of Michigan and the University of Michigan Law School. In 1995, Jennifer Gratz was denied admission to the University of Michigan undergraduate program, and a year later Barbara Grutter was rejected from the University of Michigan Law School. Both plaintiffs argued that their academic credentials and extracurricular activities should have awarded them a spot at the University. They claimed they were subjected to a form of reverse discrimination due to the university's affirmative action policies. The University of Michigan argued that its admission criteria were constitutional, and that the policies fostered a racially and ethnically diverse student body.

In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Courtruled in the Gratz v. Bollinger case that the point system used by the University of Michigan for undergraduate admissions was unconstitutional. The admissions policy was based on 150 points, and it awarded points based on items such as race (20 points), athletic ability (20 points), depth of essay (up to 3 points), leadership and service (up to 5 points) and personal achievement (up to 5 points). The point system, therefore, automatically awarded admission points to underrepresented minorities. In the majority decision, Chief Justice Rehnquist stated that the University of Michigan had violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by using an overly mechanized system as a way to include race in admission decisions.

The Grutter v. Bollinger case of was also decided in 2003. In a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly upheld the decision to allow colleges and universities to use race as a component in their admissions policies by ruling in favor of the University of Michigan’s law school admissions policy. Sandra Day O'Connor stated that the Constitution "does not prohibit the law school's narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body."

The Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger rulings are regarded as the most important since the Bakke decision. Most colleges and universities had previously followed the guidelines set forth by Bakke, stating that diversity is an integral component to a successful institution. They treaded lightly, however, unsure of how far race could be used in the admission's process. The Supreme Court's decisions in the landmark University of Michigan cases clarified this gray area and provided definitive guidance for affirmative action policies. The 2003 rulings also abrogated the Hopwood v. Texas ruling, thus permitting colleges in Texas and other states under the Fifth Circuit jurisdiction to reinstate affirmative action policies.

More information:

Gratz v. Bollinger: Case Summary
Grutter v. Bollinger: Case Summary

U.S. Supreme Court’s 2003 affirmative action rulings: NPR Coverage

Other Affirmative Action Cases

Farmer v. Ramsay

In 1998, a case against the University of Maryland School of Medicine was filed on the grounds of admission discrimination. The plaintiff, Rob Farmer, had been denied admission to the School of Medicine. Farmer's complaint stated that the University maintained "drastically lower standards for the admission of members of certain favored minority groups, especially blacks." For this reason, Farmer argued he was denied admission to the School of Medicine. Farmer held that his grades and test scores were higher than those grades and test scores of accepted black students. In 2001, the case was dismissed by a federal judge who stated that Farmer's rejection from the University was not based on race, but on his academic ability.

Tompkins v. Alabama State University
In 1995, a federal judge ordered Alabama State University and Alabama A&M University to use state funding to provide scholarships for white students. The two schools, both historically black institutions, were encouraged to spend up to one million dollars per year to attract white students and diversify their student bodies. Jessie Tompkins and three other plaintiffs filed a case against the white-only scholarship program after being denied program funds. In 2000, in the wake of a case settlement, Alabama State University changed the official language of the scholarship program, making it racially inclusive. However, Tompkins rejected the settlement, arguing that changing the program language was not sufficient, as the program could still operate in a discriminatory manner. The case was later merged with a larger desegregation case.

Pollard v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education

In 1998, Scott Pollard, a white student at the University of Tulsa, applied to Oklahoma's Academic Scholars Program. The Academic Scholars Program, which provides scholarships for high achieving students, allegedly held varying test-score requirements depending on an applicant's race and gender. In 1999, soon after Pollard's case was filed, the Oklahoma State Legislature amended the Oklahoma Academic Scholars Program, eliminating the subcategories for race and gender.


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