Tuesday, April 22, 2014

SCOTUS Upholds Michigan's Affirmative Action Ban 6-2, Sotomayor Vociferously Dissents

On Tuesday, the United States Supreme Court issued a curious 6-2 ruling upholding the constitutionality of a Michigan ballot measure which precludes the use of "race-based preferences" in public education. The majority opinion by Anthony Kennedy went out of its way to say that it was not ruling on the constitutionality of race-based affirmative action policies but on whether voters had the power to ban affirmative action policies.

New York Times reports:
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s controlling opinion for three justices took pains to say that the decision was a modest one. 
“This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved,” he wrote, in an opinion joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. “It is about who may resolve it. 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.” 
His announcement of the decision from the bench was businesslike. Then Justice Sotomayor summarized her dissent, an unusual move signaling deep displeasure. She said the initiative put minorities to a burden not faced by other college applicants and so violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause. 
“The Constitution does not protect racial minorities from political defeat,” she wrote. “But neither does it give the majority free rein to erect selective barriers against racial minorities.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined the dissent. Justice Sotomayor seemed to mock one of Chief Justice Roberts’s most memorable lines. In a 2007 decision that limited the use of race in public school systems, he wrote, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” 
Justice Sotomayor recast the line. “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race,” she wrote, “is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.”
The result is significant for California, because the Golden State is one of 7 where voters have passed ballot measures banning affirmative action based on race (or gender) in public education. California's measure is called Proposition 209 and an attempt to place a repeal on the November 2014 ballot was abandoned earlier this year after Asian constituents expressed their displeasure with the idea of allowing UCLA and UC Berkeley to be allowed to take race into account when deciding who gets admitted to California's top state universities.

This is not surprising, because figures that came out this week show that Asians are a plurality (36.2%) of all admitted students from California to the University of California, with Latinos (28.8%) surpassing Whites (26.8) for the first time this year. Black students made up a paltry 4.2% of the total number of admitted California students.

SCOTUS blog reports on how strongly Justice Sonia Sotomayor attempted to convince her colleagues that what they were doing in allowing the majority to ban policies intended to help minorities was wrong:
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who recited orally from the bench a lengthy version of her dissenting opinion, said the ruling would make it much harder for racial minorities to defend affirmative action programs.  What had happened in Michigan, she protested, was “the last chapter of discrimination” — changing “the basic rules of the political process in that state in a manner that uniquely disadvantaged racial minorities.” 
The Sotomayor opinion, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, ran to fifty-eight pages – surpassing by more than three times the length of the lead opinion by Justice Kennedy and even exceeding the forty-four pages that all of her colleagues had written.
Viva Sonia!

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