In a case that could reverberate on college campuses nationwide—and possibly in K-12 classrooms—a sharply divided federal appeals court has backed the University of Michigan law school’s right to use race as a factor in its admissions policy.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled 5-4 on May 14 that the law school had a “compelling interest” in seeking a diverse student enrollment and that its admissions process did not amount to racial quotas.
In its decision, the court applied the controlling opinion of Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. in the landmark 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, which upheld the consideration of race as one factor among several in admissions decisions.
The 6th Circuit court’s decision, which reversed a ruling by a federal judge in Detroit, added yet another constitutional wrinkle to a series of contradictory court decisions in recent years. Some federal courts have prohibited universities from considering race, in admissions; others have upheld those policies.
Last week’s ruling prompted many college-admissions officials and legal experts to predict that the Supreme Court soon would weigh in on the issue. The high court has declined to hear such cases in recent years.
“It is obviously an issue of great national importance, " said Kirk Kolbo, a Minneapolis lawyer for the Michigan plaintiffs. He said they plan to appeal to the high court.
The 6th Circuit court has not yet ruled on a separate, pending case that centers on the University of Michigan’s alleged use of racial preferences in undergraduate admissions.
Aside from their potential impact on colleges and universities, both Michigan cases could have implications for K-12 education. Several districts trying to maintain racial balance in magnet programs and other initiatives eventually could be forced to comply with the court rulings.
“If I were advising a school district in the 6th Circuit, I would certainly advise them to heed” the decision, said John R. Munich, a St. Louis lawyer who has worked on several cases involving racial preferences.
The Michigan case was initiated by Barbara Grutter, who applied to the law school, was rejected, and claimed the school’s use of race in admissions was a violation of the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the law. Ms. Grutter is white.
Judge Danny J. Boggs, in a dissenting opinion, called Michigan’s policy discriminatory and said that its impact was much broader than administrators let on.
“Even a cursory glance at ... admissions data reveals the staggering magnitude ... of racial preference,” Judge Boggs wrote.
A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2002 edition of Education Week as Appeals Court Allows Use of Race In Michigan Law School Admissions