Schuette v. Cantrell

Date Filed: 12/19/2006

Read a fact sheet from LDF and the ACLU.

Read LDF’s brief on behalf of respondents Chase Cantrell, et al. And read supporting briefs from fellow respondents University of Michigan and Wayne State University.

Read briefs filed in support of the respondents in Schuette v. Cantrell.

In November 2006, Michigan voters passed a statewide ballot initiative banning efforts to promote racial diversity and inclusion in public employment, public contracting, and public education.  Commonly known as Proposal 2, the ballot initiative prohibits Michigan’s state colleges and universities from adopting the type of narrowly-tailored race-conscious admissions policy that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld, in its landmark 2003 ruling in the Grutter v. Bollinger, as a constitutionally permissible approach to ensure an open pathway to leadership of our nation’s civic, political, and economic life.  

LDF and a coalition of civil rights groups filed a lawsuit on behalf of students, faculty, and applicants to the University of Michigan, arguing that Proposal 2 violates the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  The civil rights coalition, which also includes the ACLU of Michigan, the NAACP’s Detroit Chapter, and its Michigan Conference, relied on prior Supreme Court precedent prohibiting states from restructuring their political decision-making processes in a manner that makes it more difficult for racial minorities than for other residents to achieve legislation that is in their interest.  In Washington v. Seattle School Dist. No. 1 (1982), for instance, the Court overturned a state ballot measure that effectively allowed school busing for nearly any reason except to promote racial integration.  

Similar to the ballot measure struck down in the Seattle case, Proposal 2 selectively excludes considerations that could benefit racial minorities – ensuring fair access to higher education – from the normal political decision-making processes.  Children of alumni, track stars and residents of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, for example, are still permitted to persuade state university administrators that these characteristics are educationally valuable and thus worthy of consideration in the admissions process, but Proposal 2 bars those same state officials from giving equal – indeed, any – access in the political process for advocates who contend that race is also critical factor in ensuring a genuinely diverse student enrollment.  

The impact of Proposal 2 is particularly acute for applicants of color, whose racial identity may well be an essential component of how they view themselves and affect what they might contribute to campus life.  In the words of one of the plaintiffs represented by LDF and its coalition partners: “Being a black American is one of the most important ways in which I view myself, along with being my parent’s son [and] being a Christian.”   

Not surprisingly, as a direct result of Proposal 2, minority student enrollment has 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.  

The U.S. District Court for the District of Eastern Michigan consolidated LDF’s case, originally filed as Cantrell v. Granholm and now known as Schuette v. Cantrell, with Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action v. Granholm, another challenge to Proposal 2.  Subsequently, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the state in both cases.  Distinguishing prior Supreme Court precedent, the court held that Proposal 2 does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment.  

LDF and its civil rights coalition partners appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. A three-judge panel overturned the district court and held that Proposal 2 was an unconstitutional rigging of the political system. Indeed, as an amicus brief filed by prominent political scientists explained, state-wide ballot initiatives have frequently been used in U.S. history to disfavor racial minorities, but they have been used very rarely, if ever, to promote minority interests.  The full Sixth Circuit, sitting en banc, reaffirmed this ruling in a decision issued in November 2012.  LDF and its civil rights coalition partners have filed a brief  opposing the Michigan Attorney General’s request for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear this case. In March 2013, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and is expected to schedule argument in its new term that begins in October 2013.

It is important to recognize that this case does not concern the merits of race-conscious admissions, which have previously been upheld by the Supreme Court in cases such as Grutter. As a result, this case raises an entirely distinct issue from the challenge to the University of Texas’s diversity admissions policy that was considered by the Supreme Court in Fisher v. University of Texas. For more on LDF’s advocacy in Fisher, click here.