Views You Can Use: Voting on Affirmative Action

The Supreme Court upheld Michigan's affirmative action ban.

In a 6-2 ruling, the Supreme Court on Tuesday, April 22, 2014, upheld Michigan's ban on using race as a factor in college admissions. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, shown here in September 2013, dissented.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented with the majority opinion in the court ruling on affirmative action.

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The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Michigan has the right to constitutionally ban affirmative action practices in public university admissions. The 6-2 decision (Justice Elena Kagan recused herself) came with five different opinions.

In 2006, Michigan voters approved a Constitutional amendment that would ban giving preferential treatment based upon race in public education and employment and in government contracting. Challengers argued that the amendment violated the equal protection clause.

Justice Anthony Kennedy was joined in the controlling opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito Jr. “This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved,” Kennedy wrote. “It is about who may resolve it. There is no authority in the Constitution of the United States or in this court’s precedents for the judiciary to set aside Michigan laws that commit this policy determination to the voters.”

Previous rulings on race-based admissions policies, like one last year at the University of Texas, said states that choose to use affirmative action may do so. But Tuesday's opinions said that states should decide such matters at the ballot box, not in the courtroom.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, and argued that since other groups (like athletes and children of alumni) can still use their status as leverage for admission to a public university, racial minorities should have the same right. “The Constitution does not protect racial minorities from political defeat,” she wrote. “But neither does it give the majority free rein to erect selective barriers against racial minorities.”

Jazz Shaw of Hot Air said that Sotomayor was wrong to draw a comparison between the Michigan law and Jim Crow laws. “We’re not talking about voting rights for minorities here, nor freedom of speech or religion,” he wrote. “This was about college admissions. (Which, to be brutally honest, isn’t a constitutionally assured right for anyone.)”

“And the action in question,” continued Shaw, “rather than restricting certain people from any activity along those lines, actually spoke to ensuring that everyone would have an equal opportunity at an education in taxpayer funded educational institutions regardless of race, gender, religion, etc.

Sotomayor’s  opinion “is legally illiterate and logically indefensible,” and “offers a case study in the moral and legal corrosion that inevitably results from elevating ethnic-identity politics over the law,” wrote the editorial board of the National Review. “As a practical matter, the fact that non-white students do relatively poorly under race-neutral admissions standards at our public universities is an indictment mainly of our K–12 education system and of the cultural anarchy that has imposed especially high costs on the children of black and Latino families. It is not an indictment of race-neutral standards.”

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

The editorial board of the New York Times noted that since the affirmative action ban was passed in 2006, minority enrollment in public Michigan universities has dropped 25 percent. They concurred with Sotomayor that “race matters,” and that Roberts’ opinions in racial cases “represent a naïve vision of racial justice.”

Snipy of Wonkette said the Supreme Court’s decision gives too much credence to the opinion of voters, in ruling that the discriminatory nature of a vote doesn’t matter as long as that is what a majority has decided is right. This demonstrates the court is “ready to heave all the cases you think of as important civil rights landmarks — think Brown v Board of Education — out the window because to impose any sort of rules about how NOT to discriminate is the real discrimination. If this signals how this Court will rule on the inevitable gay marriage cases that will reach its shores, you should be afraid, very afraid, because the Court has basically just told the nation that if the majority votes for something, there’s just no way around it.”