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US Supreme Court to take up Michigan affirmative action case

At issue in the Michigan affirmative action case is whether a ballot initiative violated the rights of minority students to try to influence school officials to adopt race-conscious admissions plans.

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The petition reached the high court at a time when the justices are preparing to rule on whether a race-based affirmative action plan at the University of Texas violates the equal protection rights of white students applying for admission.

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There are two different groups that filed suit against Proposal 2. One urged the Supreme Court to take up the case; the other said the justices should not hear the case. 

If the court had declined to hear the case it would have permitted the Sixth Circuit decision to remain in full force in the four states covered by that appeals court.

“The vice of Proposal 2 is that it selectively shuts off access to the ordinary political process for advocates of otherwise constitutionally permissible race-conscious policies,” wrote Mark Rosenbaum, a lawyer with the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, in his brief urging the court not to take up the case.

He said the ballot initiative entrenched the anti-affirmative action approach in the state constitution, making it extremely difficult for supporters of affirmative action to repeal it. Yet, at the same time, those advocating race-neutral admissions factors such as legacy status, socioeconomic background, or athletics are still able to use less burdensome avenues to change or maintain admissions policies. This represents unequal treatment, he said.

Another lawyer challenging the ballot initiative, George Washington of Detroit, says in his brief that Proposal 2 creates an unequal structure of government that imposes on minority students a burden no other citizens have to endure when seeking to change admissions standards.

“Proposal 2 deprived racial minorities of equal political rights by prohibiting the governing bodies [of public universities] from adopting by simple majority vote any plan that granted ‘preferential treatment’ to minority applicants,” Mr. Washington said.

In urging the high court to take up the case, Washington says the Sixth Circuit decision is in conflict with a decision in the Ninth Circuit upholding California’s ban on race-based affirmative action. He said the split was deep and irreconcilable.

“Many well-qualified minority students can only gain admission to leading universities if those universities have adopted a lawful affirmative action program,” he wrote.

He defined the issue as whether “a state may deny a racial minority the right to fight for the adoption of programs that will allow its youth to attend the universities.”

The case, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action (12-682), will be heard in the court’s next term, which begins in October.

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