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Preamble to Grutter

In Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, decided in 1978, a majority of the Supreme Court held that while the University of California program was unconstitutional because it involved a quota, it was lawful to consider race in admissions criteria. The case involved the admissions program at the University of California Medical School at Davis, which set aside 16 spots for students admitted through their special admissions program for minority applicants. The case came to the Court after the California Supreme Court struck down the program and altogether banned the use of race in admissions programs.

Bakke serves as an appropriate introduction to the Grutter cases. Bakke, a white male who was denied admission to University of California at Davis’ medical school for two years in a row, brought an action against the Regents of the University claiming that the admissions program in the medical school was invalid under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the California Constitution, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The medical school admitted 100 students each year, 16 of which were selected using the school’s special admissions program, whereby disadvantaged members of certain minority races were given priority admission. Members of any race could qualify for the remaining 84 places in the class and Bakke was denied admission under this general admissions program, despite his claim that applicants with substantially lower scores and credentials had been admitted by way of the special admissions program.

The trial court decided that the school could not take race into account as a part of its admissions criteria and held that the program constituted a racial quota and therefore violated federal and state constitutions as well as Title VI. It did not, however, grant Bakke admission because he failed to prove that he would have been admitted were it not for the special admissions program.

California’s highest court affirmed the trial court’s decision in determining that the special admissions program was invalid under the equal protection clause. Unlike the trial court, it ruled that the school (and not Bakke himself) had the burden of demonstrating that the plaintiff would not have been admitted if not for the special admissions program.

The Supreme Court of the United States affirmed in part and reversed in part. Powell’s opinion outlined the following:

  1. it was not necessary to determine whether a private right of action existed under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, since the question had not been considered in the courts below;
  2. Title VI proscribed only those racial classifications that would violate the equal protection clause or the Fifth Amendment;
  3. for purposes of the equal protection clause, racial and ethnic distinctions of any sort were inherently suspect and thus called for the most exacting judicial examination, racial and ethnic classifications being subject to stringent examination without regard to whether the group discriminated against was a discrete and insular minority;
  4. when a burdensome classification (including a preferential classification to remedy past discrimination) touched upon an individual’s race or ethnic background, he was entitled to a judicial determination that the burden he was asked to bear on that basis was precisely tailored to serve a compelling governmental interest;
  5. since in the case at bar there was no determination by the legislature or a responsible administrative agency that the University had engaged in a discriminatory practice requiring remedial efforts, and since the special admissions program totally foreclosed some individuals from enjoying the state-provided benefit of admission to the medical school solely because of their race, the classification must be regarded as suspect, and thus was permissible only if supported by a substantial state purpose or interest, and only if the classification was necessary to the accomplishment of such purpose or the safeguarding of such interest;
  6. the special admissions program could not be justified as serving the purposes of (a) assuring within the student body a specified percentage of a particular racial group, since such racial preference was facially invalid as discrimination for its own sake, (b) countering the effects of “societal discrimination,” since the government has a substantial interest in correcting the effects of specific, identified discrimination only, (c) increasing the number of physicians who would practice in communities currently underserved, there being virtually no evidence that the special admissions program was either needed or geared to promote such goal, or (d) obtaining the educational benefits that flowed from an ethnically diverse student body, since even though such diversity was a constitutionally permissible goal in view of the First Amendment’s special concern for academic freedom, nevertheless the defendant’s program–reserving a fixed number of seats in each class solely on the basis of race, whereas the admissions programs of other universities properly took race into account as only one of the factors for consideration in achieving educational diversity through programs involving individual, competitive comparison of all applicants–was not necessary to promote the interest of diversity; and
  7. thus, the defendant’s special admissions program violated the Fourteenth Amendment, the California Supreme Court’s judgment being proper as to its invalidation of the program and its ordering the admission of the plaintiff, but being improper insofar as it enjoined the defendant from ever giving any consideration to race in its admissions process.
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