Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action

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Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued October 15, 2013
Decided April 22, 2014
Full case name Schuette, Attorney General of Michigan v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and Immigration Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) et al.
Docket nos. 12-682
Citations 572 U.S. ___ (more)
Argument Oral argument
Categorically banning affirmative action programs does not violate the Equal Protection Clause. United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed.
Court membership
Chief Justice
John G. Roberts
Associate Justices
Antonin Scalia · Anthony Kennedy
Clarence Thomas · Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Stephen Breyer · Samuel Alito
Sonia Sotomayor · Elena Kagan
Case opinions
Plurality Kennedy, joined by Roberts, Alito
Concurrence Roberts
Concurrence Scalia, joined by Thomas
Concurrence Breyer
Dissent Sotomayor, joined by Ginsburg
Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. XIV

Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, 572 U.S. ___ (2014), was a case before the United States Supreme Court questioning whether a state violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by enshrining a ban on race- and sex-based discrimination on public university admissions in its state constitution.[1][2][3]

The case was argued on October 15, 2013 on appeal from the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit which had ruled in 2012 that the Michigan ban, approved by the state's voters in 2006, was unconstitutional.[4][5] The Sixth Circuit was reversed and the state ban upheld.

The case did not result in a majority opinion; Justice Kennedy wrote a plurality opinion. Justice Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision of the case, presumably because she had worked on the case during her time as United States Solicitor General.[2]


In 1961, President John F. Kennedy issued an executive order establishing the concept of affirmative action and mandating that federally financed projects ensure that their hiring and employment practices are free of racial bias. With the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin was prohibited.

In the first case involving affirmative action in higher education, the Supreme Court ruled in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978) that the UC Davis medical school admissions program violated the Fourteenth Amendment with the institution of quotas for underrepresented minorities. It did not, however, eliminate race as a factor in university admissions, calling diversity a "compelling interest."

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Hopwood v. Texas (5th Cir.1996) that the University of Texas School of Law could not use race as a factor in admissions. This was the first successful legal challenge to racial preferences since Bakke.

Two cases in 2003 involving the University of Michigan found that the university's policy of granting extra points to minorities for undergraduate admissions was unconstitutional (Gratz v. Bollinger) but that a program which gave holistic consideration for being a certain racial minority, though not an automatic boost, in admissions to the law school was constitutional (Grutter v. Bollinger).

Michigan voters approved Proposal 2 in 2006 which amended the state's constitution to make affirmative action illegal in public employment, public education or public contracting purposes, except for actions mandated by federal law or that are necessary in order for an institution to receive federal funding.[6]

Supreme Court[edit]

The Court heard oral argument on October 15, 2013. John J. Bursch, then the Michigan Solicitor General, argued for the petitioner, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette. Mark D. Rosenbaum argued for the Cantrell respondents, and Shanta Driver argued for the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action. Justice Elena Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.[7]

Opinion and Concurrences[edit]

On April 22, 2014, the Court ruled for the petitioner that the ban on affirmative action in the Michigan Constitution is constitutional. Justice Kennedy, writing the plurality opinion joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, wrote that "[t]here is no authority in the Constitution of the United States or in this Court's precedents for the Judiciary to set aside Michigan laws that commit this policy determination to the voters."[8] Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito joined in the plurality.[9]

Chief Justice Roberts also filed a concurring opinion, arguing that the dissent contains a paradox: the governing board banning affirmative action is an exercise of policymaking authority, but others who reach that conclusion (presumed to mean the supporters of Proposal 2) do not take race seriously. He continues that racial preferences may actually do more harm than good, as they reinforce doubt about whether or not minorities belong.[citation needed]

Justice Scalia filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, joined by Justice Thomas. He examines what he calls a "frighteningly bizarre question": Whether the Equal Protection Clause forbids what its text requires. He answers this by quoting his concurrence/dissent in Grutter: that "the Constitution [forbids] government discrimination on the basis of race, and state-provided education is no exception." He asserts that the people of Michigan adopted that understanding of the clause as their fundamental law, and that by adopting it, "they did not simultaneously offend it."[citation needed]

Justice Breyer filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, arguing that the case has nothing to do with reordering the political process, nor moving decision-making power from one level to another, but rather that university boards delegated admissions-related authority to unelected faculty and administration. He further argues that the same principle which supports the right of the people or their representatives to adopt affirmative action policies for the sake of inclusion also gives them the right to vote not to do so, as Michigan did.[citation needed]


Justice Sotomayor filed a dissent, joined by Justice Ginsburg, outlining what she called the nation's "long and lamentable record of stymieing the right of racial minorities to participate in the political process." She charges that "[a] majority of the Michigan electorate changed the basic rules of the political process in that State in a manner that uniquely disadvantaged racial minorities." Sotomayor contended that those opposed to affirmative action policies could have either lobbied the boards of the state's universities to change their policies or, through the electoral process, changed the membership of the boards. She invokes the political-process doctrine, recognized in Hunter v. Erickson (1969) and Washington v. Seattle School District No. 1 (1982), whereby "[w]hen the majority reconfigures the political process in a manner that burdens only a racial minority, that alteration triggers strict judicial scrutiny." Sotomayor had previously credited her own admission to college to affirmative action, stating "I am the perfect affirmative action baby," and that without affirmative action "it would have been highly questionable if I would have been accepted."[10]


  1. ^ Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, 572 U.S. ___ (2014)
  2. ^ a b Liptak, Adam (22 April 2014). "Supreme Court Upholds Michigan's Affirmative Action Ban". The New York Times. Retrieved 22 April 2014. 
  3. ^ Schuette, Att'y Gen. of MI v. Coalition to Defend, et al.: Question Presented
  4. ^ Lewin, Tamar (15 November 2012). "Affirmative Action Ban in Michigan Is Rejected". The New York Times. Retrieved 22 April 2014. 
  5. ^ Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, et al. v. Regents of the University of Michigan, et al. (6th Cir. 2012)
  6. ^ Mich. Const., Art. I, sec. 26
  7. ^ Bensur, Gabriella (October 15, 2013). "Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action". Cornell University Law School. Retrieved April 28, 2017. 
  8. ^ Denniston, Lyle (April 22, 2014). "Opinion analysis: Affirmative action — up to the voters". SCOTUSblog. Retrieved April 22, 2014. 
  9. ^ Howe, Amy (23 April 2014). "Divided Court upholds Michigan's ban on affirmative action: In Plain English". SCOTUSblog. Retrieved 23 April 2014. 
  10. ^ Mears, Bill (2009-06-11). "Sotomayor says she was 'perfect affirmative action baby'". CNN. Retrieved 2014-04-22.