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Adarand Constructors v. Pea

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Significance: The Supreme Court required lower courts to use the standards of “strict scrutiny” when examining any preferences based on race.


The Federal Highway Division provided premiums to general contractors for awarding contracts to firms owned by members of racial minorities recognized as having experienced social and economic disadvantages. Although the Adarand Constructors company was the lowest bidder for one construction project, the award was made to a Hispanic-owned company. Adarand sued, claiming that this race-based preference violated the Fifth Amendment guarantee of equal protection. In Richmond v. J. A. Croson Co. (1989), the Supreme Court had required “strict scrutiny” on racial classifications at the state and local levels, but it had applied “intermediate scrutiny” for federal programs in Metro Broadcasting v. Federal Communications Commission (1990). The court of appeals used the more lenient standard and upheld the government's policy. However, the Supreme Court overturned the lower court's decision. Speaking for a 5-4 majority, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor held that all racial classifications must be analyzed under the strict scrutiny standard, which required such classifications to be “narrowly tailored measures that further compelling governmental objectives.” Contradicting what many authorities had written, O’Connor denied that strict scrutiny would always be “fatal in fact.” Although the Adarand decision did not end all affirmative action, it did increase the probability that federal programs involving preferences would be challenged and invalidated.