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Gratz v. Bollinger/Grutter v. Bollinger

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Significance: Declaring that government has a compelling interest in promoting student diversity, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of narrowly tailored affirmative action programs for admissions into highly competitive universities.


In the seminal case of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), the Supreme Court endorsed admissions programs that provided limited preferences for members of underrepresented groups. The use of such programs became one of the most controversial issues in American society. The future of the programs became doubtful after the Court in Adarand Constructors v. Peña (1995) held that the programs would henceforth be evaluated according to the strict scrutiny standard. Applying this standard in 1996, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit announced that all race-based admissions policies were unconstitutional. The Supreme Court declined to review the decision. The admissions policy at the University of Michigan Law School continued to provide racial preferences in order to achieve a “critical mass” of underrepresented minority students. After Barbara Grutter, a white student with a 3.8 undergraduate grade point average and an LSAT score of 161, failed to gain admission to the school, she sued with the argument that the preferences violated the equal protection clause and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Although she won at the district court level, the appellate court upheld the university's affirmative action policy. In a 5-4 decision, to the surprise of many observers, the Supreme Court also upheld the policy. Delivering the majority opinion, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor argued that the policy was “narrowly tailored” to further a compelling interest in seeking the benefits of a diverse student body. She emphasized that each student was individually reviewed, that factors other than race and ethnicity were considered, that the goal of a “critical mass” was not equivalent to a quota, and that the preferences did “not unduly harm majority students.” Finally, she wrote of her expectation that the preferences would no longer be necessary after the passage of twenty-five years. On the same day that the Grutter ruling was announced, the Court also announced Gratz v. Bollinger, in which the university's admissions policy for minorities was found unconstitutional by a 6-3 margin. For selecting undergraduates, the university had simply added a 20 percent increase in the number of points to every underrepresented minority applicant without any individualized assessment. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist declared that because the automatic preferences were not narrowly tailored, they did not survive a review according to the strict scrutiny standards.