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Regents of the University of California v. Bakke

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Significance: The Supreme Court held that educational institutions may not use rigid quotas in their admissions policies but may take race into account in order to increase minority enrollment.


By the 1970's many colleges and graduate schools were using affirmative action programs as part of admission policies, usually granting preferences to members of disadvantaged minority groups in order to increase their statistical representation. The medical school of the University of California at Davis instituted a program that reserved sixteen out of one hundred openings for minority students. Alan Bakke, a white male, was denied admission, even though his grades and test scores were significantly higher than those of most students who were admitted under the set-aside program. Bakke claimed that the policy violated both the Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Law of 1964. The university was unable to certify that Bakke would not have been admitted without the special admissions policy. When the controversial case was appealed to the Supreme Court, it was accompanied by fifty-eight amicus curiae briefs. In Bakke, a divided Court made two rulings. By a 5-4 vote, the Court struck down the university's dual system of admissions, which meant that Bakke was accepted into the medical school. In another 5-4 vote, the Court declared that schools could take race into account as one among several factors promoting diversity. Four justices insisted that the 1964 statute prohibited all racial preferences, and four justices found no constitutional or statutory violation in set-aside programs for disadvantaged minorities. Because Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr., voted with the majority in both rulings, he delivered the controlling opinion in the case. Powell emphasized that each applicant should have the “right to individualized consideration without regard to race.” He did not speak for a majority, however, when he advocated use of the compelling state interest test for deciding which racial preferences were permissible. The Bakke case did not provide much guidance on the affirmative action issue. Because of the variety of opinions in the case, it was unclear which level of judicial scrutiny should be used in evaluating programs, and the majority ruling did not explicitly prohibit the use of statistical goals and timetables, which were similar to quotas in result. In the late 1990's there was a strong reaction against the use of racial and gender preferences, and the Court in Adarand Constructors v. Peña (1995) held that all preferences must be justified according to the compelling state interest test.



Further Reading

  • McNeese, Tim. Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. New York: Chelsea House, 2006.
  • O’Neill, Timothy. “Bakke” and the Politics of Equality. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
  • Schwartz, Bernard. Behind “Bakke”: Affirmative Action and the Supreme Court. New York: New York University Press, 1988.
  • Spann, Girardeau A. The Law of Affirmative Action: Twenty-Five Years of Supreme Court Decisions on Race and Remedies. New York: New York University Press, 2000.