The United States Supreme Court announced last week it will hear a second case on the constitutionality of affirmative action, this time concerning a ban in Michigan similar to one that already exists in California.
Affirmative action consists of policies that favor underrepresented groups based on factors such as race, color, sex or religion.
The outcome of the Michigan case, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, could affect California’s universities if the Supreme Court decides states cannot enact affirmative action bans like Michigan’s Proposal 2, which prohibits the use of racial preferences in state university admissions.
Though it is unlikely, UCLA Law Professor Jonathan Varat said a Supreme Court ruling that declares all state affirmative action bans unconstitutional would be “sweeping” and “shocking.” Such a decision would make California’s voter-approved affirmative action ban, Proposition 209, unconstitutional, he said.
Schuette v. Coalition comes from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which ruled last year that Michigan’s affirmative action ban violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. The ruling stated Michigan’s measure made it more difficult for a student to effect change for affirmative action than for other aspects of state universities’ policies.
In 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld California’s Proposition 209 and said the measure did not deny equal protection of the law.
The Supreme Court likely agreed to hear Schuette v. Coalition because it wants to address the disparities between the appeals court that oversees Michigan and the court that oversees California, said Roger Clegg, president and general counsel for the Center of Equal Opportunity, an advocacy group that supports both Proposition 209 and Proposal 2.
Varat said the Supreme Court may have taken on the case to revise the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit’s decision in Michigan, since the ruling was what he called “a stretch.” The decision was also a close one – the court’s vote was 8 to 7.
“(The appeals court’s ruling) is a pretty generous interpretation of the equal protection clause,” Varat said. “I think there’s probably a good chance it will get reversed.”
The constitutionality of affirmative action is already being debated in the Supreme Court. The Court is currently deliberating Fisher v. University of Texas, a case in which a white student claimed she was denied admission to the University of Texas because of racial preferences. A decision is expected to come out soon this year.
It was unexpected for the high court to take on Schuette v. Coalition, while already working on a case about affirmative action, according to the Los Angeles Times.
But Fisher v. University of Texas and Schuette v. Coalition are not exactly the same. Schuette v. Coalition concerns a state measure banning affirmative action, while Fisher v. Texas concerns the use of affirmative action to increase diversity.
In August, the University of California submitted an amicus curiae brief siding with the University of Texas. The brief stated that race-neutral policies like those mandated by Proposition 209 lead to a “substantial decline” in black, American Indian and Latino students, which complicates the UC’s efforts to enroll a diverse student body.
A decision on Fisher v. University of Texas, however, may have no direct effect on California’s universities, Varat said. The case could more likely affect states that do not already have affirmative action bans, he added.
The University of California is more interested in Schuette v. Coalition because it concerns a measure that is similar to California’s affirmative action ban, said Dianne Klein, a UC spokeswoman.
The Supreme Court plans to deliberate Schuette v. Coalition during its next term, in as early as October.
Contributing reports by Anjana Amirapu, Bruin contributor.