The Supreme Court issued a major ruling in regards to affirmative action on Tuesday, stating in a 6-2 decision that U.S. states maintain the right to ban the use of affirmative action during college admissions processes if state citizens vote to institute such a ban.
The case, Schuette v. Bamn, centered on a revision to the Michigan state constitution that was voted in by the public in 2006. The revision, which banned public Michigan colleges from using race as a factor in admissions, was a decision made by state voters. The ruling opinion on Tuesday argued the U.S. constitution upholds the Michigan law in favor of states’ rights to represent their voters and their choices made through elections.
The ruling essentially supports similar laws in other states, such as Florida and California, and solidifies the right of states to determine the usage of affirmative action. According to the New York Times, four justices wrote opinions arguing that policies “that do not involve intentional discrimination should be decided at the ballot box rather than in the courtroom.”
Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, state that the ruling is not addressing the debate over the use of racial preferences.
“It is about who may resolve it [the debate],” wrote Kennedy. “There 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.”
The ruling significantly places a clear distinction between national and state governments’ separate powers in the implementation of these types of policies. Justice Stephen Breyer argued in his opinion that the Constitution allows, but does not require states to implement “race-conscious” admissions policies, according to the New York Times.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented from the decision along with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Sotomayor wrote the dissenting opinion stating “This refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters is regrettable. As members of the judiciary tasked with intervening to carry out the guarantee of equal protection, we ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society.”
She focused on the needed focus of race and the impact it has on society. “Race matters to a young man’s view of society when he spends his teenage years watching others tense up as he passes, no matter the neighborhood where he grew up,” wrote Sotomayor. “Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her hometown, and then is pressed, ‘No, where are you really from?”
Sotomayor agreed with parts of the lower courts justification that originally struck down the ban. She believed that those who wanted the school to notice their application for reasons not specific to race, including hometown, sports and academics were able to “lobby” the boards on the schools, but the ruling in Michigan only banned the consideration of race and not those other justifications for admissions that applicants used.
Sotomayor read her decision from the bench while the Supreme Court was full of spectators and reporters. Justices rarely publicly read their opinions from the bench, unless the case is controversial and there is strong disagreement between the justices.
Chief Justice Roberts responded to Sotomayor’s dissent, stating that the debate over affirmative action can hurt the overall discussion.
“People can disagree in good faith on this issue, but it similarly does more harm than good to question the openness and candor of those on either side of the debate,” said Roberts.
Justice Elena Kagan did not vote on this case, claiming she previously worked on the case while she was Solicitor General under the Obama administration.