In June 2003, the Supreme Court issued landmark rulings in two companion cases, Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger. In Grutter, the Court rebuffed a constitutional challenge to the use of race in admissions to the University of Michigan Law School. In so doing, the Court decisively resolved any doubt that colleges and universities have a constitutionally-recognized compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits of a diverse student body. Indeed, the Court emphasized that “the nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to the ideas and mores of students as diverse as this Nation of many peoples.” Although the Court rejected Michigan’s points-driven undergraduate admissions policy in Gratz, these two cases together make clear that a narrowly-tailored admissions policy that takes into account race as one factor among many in an individualized, holistic review of each applicant’s background is likely to pass constitutional muster.
In Gratz, LDF served as lead counsel for the African-American and Latino students who intervened to defend the constitutionality of Michigan’s admissions program, along with the ACLU, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and a Michigan-based organization called Citizens for Affirmative Action’s Preservation. In Grutter, LDF filed an amicus curie (“friend of the court“) brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the Law School, along with a slew of civil rights organizations, universities, Fortune 500 companies, United States military leaders, and other interested parties who weighed in to support the University of Michigan and to support affirmative action in general. John Payton, who would later become LDF’s sixth Director-Counsel, argued on behalf of the University of Michigan before the Supreme Court in Gratz.
By preserving race-conscious admissions, the Court’s rulings advance the national consensus that colleges and universities should continue to assist in dismantling the continuing effects of this country’s past system of official apartheid. In Grutter, the Court acknowledged that this country still has a long way to go toward achieving racial equality. To advance that goal and “cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry,” the Court held that colleges and universities may take steps to ensure that their campuses and classrooms are “visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity.”