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In Regents of University of California v. Bakke (1978), the Court ruled unconstitutional a university's use of racial "quotas" in its admissions process, but held that affirmative action programs could be constitutional in some circumstances.

Reproduction courtesy of the University of California
Regents of University of California v. Bakke (1978)

In Regents of University of California v. Bakke (1978), the Supreme Court ruled that a university's use of racial "quotas" in its admissions process was unconstitutional, but a school's use of "affirmative action" to accept more minority applicants was constitutional in some circumstances. The case involved the admissions practices of the Medical School of the University of California at Davis. The medical school reserved 16 out of 100 seats in its entering class for minorities, including "Blacks," "Chicanos," "Asians," and "American Indians." The rigid admissions quota was administered by a special school committee. Allan Bakke, a white applicant, was twice denied admission to the medical school even though his MCAT scores, GPA, and benchmark scores were "significantly higher" than those of some minority applicants recently admitted.

Bakke sued the University of California in a state court, alleging that the medical school's admission policy violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. The California Supreme Court agreed, finding that the quota system explicitly discriminated against racial groups and holding that "no applicant may be rejected because of his race, in favor of another who is less qualified, as measured by standards applied without regard to race." The medical school, ordered to shut down its quota system, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reviewed the case in 1978.

The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision written by Justice Lewis Franklin Powell, ruled that a state may constitutionally consider race as a factor in its university admissions to promote educational diversity, but only if considered alongside other factors and on a case-by-case basis. California's use of racial quotas in this case, however, did not meet those requirements and violated the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause, which forbids a state from denying "to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The Court held that the medical school racially discriminated against whites because it excluded them from 16 out of 100 spots solely by virtue of their race. The fact that blacks have historically had been discriminated against more than whites was irrelevant to this case, because racial quota systems, whether applied against whites or blacks, are always "odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality." Indeed, because the school's quota was designed to redress past discrimination against racial minorities, the Court stated, it was intended to prefer "one group for no other reason other than race or ethnic origin." Thus, the Court ruled that the school's quota system "must be rejected ... as racially invalid" under the Equal Protection Clause.

The Court also ruled, however, that the state "has a legitimate and substantial interest in ... eliminating ... the disabling effects of identified discrimination." Yet to prosecute those rights within the Constitution's limits, a state must first make judicial, administrative, or legislative findings that document illegal and specific discrimination against racial groups. An admissions department may then attempt to "redress" these findings of past discrimination by considering an applicant's race as a "plus" factor among many in its admissions decisions. Such a race-conscious consideration, however, may only be one of many factors used in assessing each applicant, and the race of each applicant may never be a preclusive factor in granting admission.

Regents of University of California v. Bakke established a pragmatic means of reconciling well-intentioned quota and affirmative action programs with the Constitution's zealous protection of equality. In sum, racial quotas are always unconstitutional, but affirmative action programs may be constitutional if race is considered as one of many admission factors and used to remedy past findings of discrimination and to promote diversity. In the 30 years since this ruling, public and private universities have crafted affirmative action programs consistent with Bakke's requirements. In Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), for example, the Supreme Court reaffirmed Bakke's basic approach and ruled that University of Michigan Law School's policy of giving significant but non-determinative weight to its applicants' race was "neutral" enough, and Michigan's interest in a diverse student body was "compelling" enough, to meet constitutionally standards of equality. In a related but separate decision -- Gratz v. Bollinger -- issued on the same day, however, the Court struck Michigan's undergraduate affirmative action program, which employed a points system to rate applicants and which awarded automatic points to minority applicants.

Alex McBride is a third year law student at Tulane Law School in New Orleans. He is articles editor on the TULANE LAW REVIEW and the 2005 recipient of the Ray Forrester Award in Constitutional Law. In 2007, Alex will be clerking with Judge Susan Braden on the United States Court of Federal Claims in Washington.

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