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Court of Appeals Strikes Down Michigan Ballot Initiative Blocking Equal Opportunity in University Admissions

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Friday, July 1, 2011

(New York, NY) -- Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit struck down a Michigan ballot initiative that unconstitutionally limited access to opportunity at the state’s public universities and in other contexts.  Passed in 2006 and commonly known as “Proposal 2,” the initiative was a deliberate effort to prohibit precisely the types of race-conscious admissions policies that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) as constitutionally permissible approaches to ensuring pathways to leadership in our nation’s civic, political, and economic life.  The Court of Appeals concluded that Proposal 2 unconstitutionally imposed “special procedural barriers to minority interests” by forcing supporters of educational diversity to “surmount more formidable obstacles to achieve their political objectives than other groups face.” 

“The Constitution requires that our democratic processes must be open and accessible to all citizens, regardless of their race,” said John Payton, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), which filed this lawsuit, known as Cantrell v. Granholm, along with the ACLU and a coalition of other civil rights groups on behalf of students, faculty, and applicants to the University of Michigan. “Today’s decision ensures fairness for advocates of diversity and inclusion in higher education.”

As the Court of Appeals concluded in today’s decision, “[e]nsuring a fair political process is nowhere more important than in education.”  The Court held that Proposal 2 violated the U.S. Constitution because it selectively excluded considerations that could benefit racial minorities – such as ensuring fair access to higher education – from Michigan’s normal political decision-making processes.  The Court went on to emphasize the “stark contrast between the avenues for political change available to different admissions proponents following Proposal 2.”  Under that ballot initiative, the children of alumni, athletes, and residents of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, for example, were free to persuade state university administrators that these characteristics are educationally valuable and thus worthy of consideration in the university admissions process.  Yet, Proposal 2 barred those same state university officials from giving equal – indeed, any – access in the admissions process for advocates who contend that race is also a critical factor in ensuring a genuinely diverse student enrollment.  The only way that advocates of race-conscious diversity programs could advance this objective was through the onerous process of amending the state constitution.

The impact of Proposal 2 has been particularly acute for applicants of color, whose racial identity is often an important component of how they view themselves and may affect what they contribute to campus life.  Not surprisingly, as a result of Proposal 2, minority enrollment decreased at Michigan’s most selective public universities.  For instance, according to the University of Michigan’s statistics, African-American undergraduate enrollment fell from 6.7% in 2006 to 4.5% in 2010.  Today’s ruling paves the way for reversing that alarming trend. 

LDF’s co-counsel Mark Rosenbaum, of the ACLU of Southern California, successfully argued this case in the Court of Appeals.