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Supreme Court hints at narrow ruling in Michigan affirmative action case (+video)

The US Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday on whether Michigan's ban on affirmative action in college admissions violates the equal protection of minorities.

By Staff writer / October 15, 2013

Tabrian Joe, a student at Western Michigan University, and other protesters in support of affirmative action, gather outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday as eight justices hear oral arguments in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action.

Susan Walsh/AP

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WASHINGTON

The US Supreme Court took up an unusual – but important – civil rights case on Tuesday testing whether a ban on using race-based affirmative action in college admissions in Michigan violates the equal protection rights of minorities.

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The case arrives at the high court four months after the justices declined to issue a sweeping decision in a case testing the constitutionality of an affirmative action program at the University of Texas.

Based on questions asked during the hour-long argument session on Tuesday, it appears that the justices are disinclined to issue a broad ruling in the Michigan case, as well.

Instead, several conservative justices seemed to be searching for a way to uphold Michigan’s ban on affirmative action without overruling underlying precedents.

The court’s liberal justices were unified in their opposition to the ban.

The case is being heard by eight of the nine justices. Justice Elena Kagan has recused herself, because she worked on the case while serving as US solicitor general.

That leaves a potential 5-to-3 lineup if the court splits into conservative-liberal camps.

The case, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action (12-682), involves a legal challenge to a 2006 statewide ballot initiative in Michigan. The measure, Proposition 2, amended the state constitution to ban race-based affirmative action in public education. Fifty-eight percent of voters approved it.

In urging the justices to uphold the ban, Michigan Solicitor General John Bursch argued that there is a significant difference between removing an anti-discrimination law from the books in a way that hurts minorities and enacting an equal treatment law that merely requires that everyone be treated the same.

“It does not violate equal protection to require equal treatment,” Mr. Bursch said.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor questioned whether the Michigan ban had been passed in part out of racial animus – a desire to harm the admission prospects of minority students.

“One of the main sponsors of this bill said it was intended to segregate again,” Justice Sotomayor said.

Solicitor General Bursch responded that a federal judge had found there was no proof of improper motive behind the ban. He said the lack of racial animus was a reason to uphold the measure.

Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor continued to press Bursch on the impact of the ban. They noted that it had resulted in a significant decrease in minority enrollment at the University of Michigan.

Bursch responded that enrollment statistics weren’t as bad as reported. He said some of the decrease could be attributed to a change in the way the university asked new students to identify themselves on enrollment forms in terms of race and ethnicity.

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