BARBARA GRUTTER, PETITIONER v. LEE BOLLINGER et al.
ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT
June 23, 2003
Justice O’Connor delivered the opinion of the Court.
This case requires us to decide whether the use of race as a factor in student admissions by the University of Michigan Law School (Law School) is unlawful.
The Law School ranks among the Nation’s top law schools. It receives
more than 3,500 applications each year for a class of around 350
Seeking to “admit a group of students who individually and collectively
are among the most capable,” the Law School looks for individuals with
“substantial promise for success in law school” and “a strong
of succeeding in the practice of law and contributing in diverse ways
the well-being of others.” More broadly, the Law School seeks “a mix of
students with varying backgrounds and experiences who will respect and learn from each other.” In 1992, the dean of the Law School charged a faculty committee with crafting a written admissions policy to implement these goals. In particular, the Law School sought to ensure that its efforts to achieve student body diversity complied with this Court’s most recent ruling on the use of race in university admissions. See Regents of Univ. of Cal. v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978). Upon the unanimous adoption of the committee’s report by the Law School faculty, it became the Law School’s official admissions policy.
The hallmark of that policy is its focus on academic ability coupled with a flexible assessment of applicants’ talents, experiences, and potential “to contribute to the learning of those around them.” The policy requires admissions officials to evaluate each applicant based on all the information available in the file, including a personal statement, letters of recommendation, and an essay describing the ways in which the applicant will contribute to the life and diversity of the Law School. In reviewing an applicant’s file, admissions officials must consider the applicant’s undergraduate grade point average (GPA) and Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) score because they are important (if imperfect) predictors of academic success in law school. The policy stresses that “no applicant should be admitted unless we expect that applicant to do well enough to graduate with no serious academic problems.”
The policy makes clear, however, that even the highest possible
does not guarantee admission to the Law School. Nor does a low score
disqualify an applicant. Rather, the policy requires admissions
to look beyond grades and test scores to other criteria that are
to the Law School’s educational objectives. So-called “ ‘soft’
such as “the
enthusiasm of recommenders, the quality of the undergraduate institution, the quality of the applicant’s essay, and the areas and difficulty of undergraduate course selection” are all brought to bear in assessing an “applicant’s likely contributions to the intellectual and social life of the institution.” Ibid.
The policy aspires to “achieve that diversity which has the potential to enrich everyone’s education and thus make a law school class stronger than the sum of its parts.” The policy does not restrict the types of diversity contributions eligible for “substantial weight” in the admissions process, but instead recognizes “many possible bases for diversity admissions.” The policy does, however, reaffirm the Law School’s longstanding commitment to “one particular type of diversity,” that is, “racial and ethnic diversity with special reference to the inclusion of students from groups which have been historically discriminated against, like African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans, who without this commitment might not be represented in our student body in meaningful numbers.” By enrolling a “ ‘critical mass’ of [underrepresented] minority students,” the Law School seeks to “ensur[e] their ability to make unique contributions to the character of the Law School.”
Petitioner Barbara Grutter is a white Michigan resident who applied to the Law School in 1996 with a 3.8 grade point average and 161 LSAT score. The Law School initially placed petitioner on a waiting list, but subsequently rejected her application. In December 1997, petitioner filed suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan against the Law School....Petitioner alleged that respondents discriminated against her on the basis of race in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment; Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 Stat. 252, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d; and Rev. Stat. §1977, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 1981.
Petitioner further alleged that her application was rejected because the Law School uses race as a “predominant” factor, giving applicants who belong to certain minority groups “a significantly greater chance of admission than students with similar credentials from disfavored racial groups.” Petitioner also alleged that respondents “had no compelling interest to justify their use of race in the admissions process.....”
In an attempt to quantify the extent to which the Law School actually considers race in making admissions decisions, the parties introduced voluminous evidence at trial. Relying on data obtained from the Law School, petitioner’s expert, Dr. Kinley Larntz, generated and analyzed “admissions grids” for the years in question (1995—2000). These grids show the number of applicants and the number of admittees for all combinations of GPAs and LSAT scores. Dr. Larntz made “ ‘cell-by-cell’ ” comparisons between applicants of different races to determine whether a statistically significant relationship existed between race and admission rates. He concluded that membership in certain minority groups “ ‘is an extremely strong factor in the decision for acceptance,’ ” and that applicants from these minority groups “ ‘are given an extremely large allowance for admission’ ” as compared to applicants who are members of nonfavored groups. Dr. Larntz conceded, however, that race is not the predominant factor in the Law School’s admissions calculus.
Dr. Stephen Raudenbush, the Law School’s expert, focused on the predicted effect of eliminating race as a factor in the Law School’s admission process. In Dr. Raudenbush’s view, a race-blind admissions system would have a “ ‘very dramatic,’ ” negative effect on underrepresented minority admissions. He testified that in 2000, 35 percent of underrepresented minority applicants were admitted. Dr. Raudenbush predicted that if race were not considered, only 10 percent of those applicants would have been admitted. Under this scenario, underrepresented minority students would have comprised 4 percent of the entering class in 2000 instead of the actual figure of 14.5 percent....
We last addressed the use of race in public higher education over 25 years ago....Since this Court’s splintered decision in Bakke, Justice Powell’s opinion announcing the judgment of the Court has served as the touchstone for constitutional analysis of race-conscious admissions policies. We therefore discuss Justice Powell’s opinion in some detail.
In Justice Powell’s view, when governmental decisions “touch upon an individual’s race or ethnic background, he is entitled to a judicial determination that the burden he is asked to bear on that basis is precisely tailored to serve a compelling governmental interest.” Under this exacting standard, only one of the interests asserted by the university survived Justice Powell’s scrutiny....
Justice Powell approved the university’s use of race to further “the attainment of a diverse student body.” With the important proviso that “constitutional limitations protecting individual rights may not be disregarded,” Justice Powell grounded his analysis in the academic freedom that “long has been viewed as a special concern of the First Amendment.” Justice Powell emphasized that nothing less than the “ ‘nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure’ to the ideas and mores of students as diverse as this Nation of many peoples.”
Justice Powell was, however, careful to emphasize that in his view race “is only one element in a range of factors a university properly may consider in attaining the goal of a heterogeneous student body.” For Justice Powell, “[i]t is not an interest in simple ethnic diversity, in which a specified percentage of the student body is in effect guaranteed to be members of selected ethnic groups,” that can justify the use of race. Rather, “[t]he diversity that furthers a compelling state interest encompasses a far broader array of qualifications and characteristics of which racial or ethnic origin is but a single though important element.”
In the wake of our fractured decision in Bakke, courts have
to discern whether Justice Powell’s diversity rationale, set forth in
of the opinion joined by no other Justice, is nonetheless binding
under Marks. In that case, we explained that “[w]hen a fragmented Court
decides a case and no single rationale explaining the result enjoys the
assent of five Justices, the holding of the Court may be viewed as that
position taken by those Members who concurred in the judgments on the
grounds.” 430 U.S., at 193..... We do not find it necessary to decide
Justice Powell’s opinion is binding under Marks.... For the reasons set
out below, today we endorse Justice Powell’s view that student body
is a compelling state interest that can justify the use of race in
The Law School’s educational judgment that such diversity is essential to its educational mission is one to which we defer. The Law School’s assessment that diversity will, in fact, yield educational benefits is substantiated by respondents and their amici. Our scrutiny of the interest asserted by the Law School is no less strict for taking into account complex educational judgments in an area that lies primarily within the expertise of the university. Our holding today is in keeping with our tradition of giving a degree of deference to a university’s academic decisions, within constitutionally prescribed limits....
As part of its goal of “assembling a class that is both exceptionally academically qualified and broadly diverse,” the Law School seeks to “enroll a ‘critical mass’ of minority students.” The Law School’s interest is not simply “to assure within its student body some specified percentage of a particular group merely because of its race or ethnic origin.” That would amount to outright racial balancing, which is patently unconstitutional. Rather, the Law School’s concept of critical mass is defined by reference to the educational benefits that diversity is designed to produce.
These benefits are substantial. The Law School’s admissions policy promotes “cross-racial understanding,” helps to break down racial stereotypes, and “enables [students] to better understand persons of different races.” These benefits are “important and laudable,” because “classroom discussion is livelier, more spirited, and simply more enlightening and interesting” when the students have “the greatest possible variety of backgrounds.....”
Even in the limited circumstance when drawing racial distinctions is permissible to further a compelling state interest, government is still “constrained in how it may pursue that end: [T]he means chosen to accomplish the [government’s] asserted purpose must be specifically and narrowly framed to accomplish that purpose.” The purpose of the narrow tailoring requirement is to ensure that “the means chosen ‘fit’ … th[e] compelling goal so closely that there is little or no possibility that the motive for the classification was illegitimate racial prejudice or stereotype.”
Since Bakke, we have had no occasion to define the contours of the narrow-tailoring inquiry with respect to race-conscious university admissions programs. That inquiry must be calibrated to fit the distinct issues raised by the use of race to achieve student body diversity in public higher education.....
To be narrowly tailored, a race-conscious admissions program cannot use a quota system–it cannot “insulat[e] each category of applicants with certain desired qualifications from competition with all other applicants.” Instead, a university may consider race or ethnicity only as a “ ‘plus’ in a particular applicant’s file,” without “insulat[ing] the individual from comparison with all other candidates for the available seats.” In other words, an admissions program must be “flexible enough to consider all pertinent elements of diversity in light of the particular qualifications of each applicant, and to place them on the same footing for consideration, although not necessarily according them the same weight.”
We find that the Law School’s admissions program bears the hallmarks of a narrowly tailored plan.....We are satisfied that the Law School’s admissions program, like the Harvard plan described by Justice Powell, does not operate as a quota.... The Law School’s goal of attaining a critical mass of underrepresented minority students does not transform its program into a quota. As the Harvard plan described by Justice Powell recognized, there is of course “some relationship between numbers and achieving the benefits to be derived from a diverse student body, and between numbers and providing a reasonable environment for those students admitted.” “[S]ome attention to numbers,” without more, does not transform a flexible admissions system into a rigid quota....
That a race-conscious admissions program does not operate as a quota does not, by itself, satisfy the requirement of individualized consideration. When using race as a “plus” factor in university admissions, a university’s admissions program must remain flexible enough to ensure that each applicant is evaluated as an individual and not in a way that makes an applicant’s race or ethnicity the defining feature of his or her application. The importance of this individualized consideration in the context of a race-conscious admissions program is paramount....
Here, the Law School engages in a highly individualized, holistic review of each applicant’s file, giving serious consideration to all the ways an applicant might contribute to a diverse educational environment. The Law School affords this individualized consideration to applicants of all races. There is no policy, either de jure or de facto, of automatic acceptance or rejection based on any single “soft” variable. Unlike the program at issue in Gratz v. Bollinger, ante, the Law School awards no mechanical, predetermined diversity “bonuses” based on race or ethnicity.....
We also find that, like the Harvard plan Justice Powell referenced in Bakke, the Law School’s race-conscious admissions program adequately ensures that all factors that may contribute to student body diversity are meaningfully considered alongside race in admissions decisions.....All applicants have the opportunity to highlight their own potential diversity contributions through the submission of a personal statement, letters of recommendation, and an essay describing the ways in which the applicant will contribute to the life and diversity of the Law School.
What is more, the Law School actually gives substantial weight to diversity factors besides race....
In the context of higher education, the durational requirement can be met by sunset provisions in race-conscious admissions policies and periodic reviews to determine whether racial preferences are still necessary to achieve student body diversity....Universities in California, Florida, and Washington State, where racial preferences in admissions are prohibited by state law, are currently engaged in experimenting with a wide variety of alternative approaches. Universities in other States can and should draw on the most promising aspects of these race-neutral alternatives as they develop.
The requirement that all race-conscious admissions programs have a termination point “assure[s] all citizens that the deviation from the norm of equal treatment of all racial and ethnic groups is a temporary matter, a measure taken in the service of the goal of equality itself.” We take the Law School at its word that it would “like nothing better than to find a race-neutral admissions formula” and will terminate its race-conscious admissions program as soon as practicable. It has been 25 years since Justice Powell first approved the use of race to further an interest in student body diversity in the context of public higher education. Since that time, the number of minority applicants with high grades and test scores has indeed increased. We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.....
Chief Justice Rehnquist, with whom Justice Scalia, Justice Kennedy, and Justice Thomas join, dissenting.
I do not believe that the University of Michigan Law School’s (Law
means are narrowly tailored to the interest it asserts. The Law School
claims it must take the steps it does to achieve a “ ‘critical mass’ ”
of underrepresented minority students. But its actual program
no relation to this asserted goal. Stripped of its “critical mass”
the Law School’s program is revealed as a naked effort to achieve
Although the Court recites the language of our strict scrutiny analysis, its application of that review is unprecedented in its deference.....The Law School has offered no explanation for its actual admissions practices and, unexplained, we are bound to conclude that the Law School has managed its admissions program, not to achieve a “critical mass,” but to extend offers of admission to members of selected minority groups in proportion to their statistical representation in the applicant pool. But this is precisely the type of racial balancing that the Court itself calls “patently unconstitutional.”
Finally, I believe that the Law School’s program fails strict scrutiny because it is devoid of any reasonably precise time limit on the Law School’s use of race in admissions..... The Court suggests a possible 25-year limitation on the Law School’s current program. Respondents, on the other hand, remain more ambiguous, explaining that “the Law School of course recognizes that race-conscious programs must have reasonable durational limits....These discussions of a time limit are the vaguest of assurances. In truth, they permit the Law School’s use of racial preferences on a seemingly permanent basis. Thus, an important component of strict scrutiny–that a program be limited in time–is casually subverted.....
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