A Sampling of Affirmative Action Cases Tried in American Courts

"In light of this sorry history of discrimination and the devastating impact on the lives of our Negroes, bringing the Negro into the mainstream of American life should be a state interest of the highest order.To fail to do so is to insure that America will remain a divided society."
- Justice Thurgood Marshall's Dissenting Opinion on the case University of California v. Bakke :
June 26, 1978


Regents of the University of California v. Bakke: This precedent-setting case for Affirmative Action was the first case tried before the Supreme Court to qualify and define how Affirmative Action could be implemented in universities.

The Case: The case was tried before the Supreme Court in 1977 and a ruling was given in 1978. The plaintiff, Allan Bakke, had applied to the UC Davis Medical School twice (the first time in 1973 and the second in 1974) and was rejected both times. At the time, there were two programs for admissions to the UC Davis Medical School: the general admissions program and the special admissions program for those students who felt that they were either at an economic or an educational disadvantage in comparison with the other students. The students who were accepted through the second admissions program did not have to meet the same admissions requirements as the students who were accepted through the general admissions program. In addition, all the students who were accepted through this special program in the two years in which Bakke applied were minority students (even though there were white applicants to this program) with admissions scores significantly lower than Bakke's. Bakke then proceeded to sue UC Davis for admission, claiming that he was being unfairly discriminated against because of his race. The trial court and the California Supreme Court both ruled in favor of Bakke, finding that the UC Davis special admissions program was a quota system that was an unlawful violation of, among other things, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and that UC Davis had not accepted Bakke solely on account of his race.

The Verdict: The Supreme Court, although split 5-4, also ruled in favor of Bakke with Judge Powell as the deciding vote. It was decided that quota systems such as the one employed by UC Davis were violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, race could still be used as a positive factor in the admissions process.

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Wygant v. Jackson Board of Education: This case challenged the use of affirmative action in the firing of teachers.

The Case: This case was argued before the Supreme Court in 1985 and a verdict was given in 1986. The Jackson Board of Education, along with the teacher's union, had come up with a layoff policy which, while first establishing that teachers with the most seniority would not be laid off, also established that the percentage of minority teachers laid off could not exceed the amount of minority teachers employed at the time of the layoff. This, however, meant that some white teachers were fired and some minority teachers with less seniority were not. Upon being fired, Wendy Wygant (a white teacher) brought her case to the Federal District Court claiming that this policy violated her rights under The Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment as well as various other state and federal statutes. The Federal District Court found in favor of the Board of Education, claiming that minority teachers deserve preference because they provide role models for minority students and help counteract social discrimination.

The Verdict: The Supreme Court (again split 5-4) reversed the District Court's ruling, stating that societal discrimination is not a good enough reason to infringe upon the rights of innocent people. There has to be a history of discrimination within the state unit for affirmative action to be justified. Furthermore, using affirmative action for hiring purposes is not very intrusive on the lives of innocent people, while using affirmative action for layoffs is. Therefore, the former is justifiable to a limited extent while the latter is not.

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Hopwood v. University of Texas Law School: This case was essentially a repeat of the University of California v. Bakke 20 years later, but with quite a different result.

The Case: The University of Texas Law School had long been employing Affirmative Action in its admissions process. However, its program gave preference only to African Americans and Mexican Americans, rather than all minorities in general. However, in 1992 Cheryl Hopwood, a white female applicant who had been rejected, filed suit against the school along with three other white rejected applicants in the US District Court claiming that they were denied admission solely because of their race and that less qualified African and Mexican Americans had been accepted instead of them. They also claimed that this admissions policy violated their rights under the 14th Amendment. The case was heard in 1994 by Judge Sparks, who ruled in favor of the defendant, stating that affirmative action was still necessary because American institutions are unfortunately still inherently racist. The plaintiffs then appealed to the Fifth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals, in which the case was heard in 1996.

The Verdict: The 5th Court of Appeals delivered a verdict through the voice of Jerry E. Smith. He stated that "The law school has presented no compelling justification, under the Fourteenth Amendment or Supreme Court precedent, that allows it to continue to elevate some races over others, even for the wholesome purpose of correcting perceived racial imbalance in the student body." The court suspended the university's affirmative action program and declared that the Bakke decision was invalid in this case. The defendant tried to appeal it to the Supreme Court, but it refused to hear the case, making this ruling law for all universities in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.

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Grutter v. Bollinger: This case is the most recent Supreme Court case concerning affirmative action and its implementation in universities.

The Case: The University of Michigan Law School, like the Law School of the University of Texas, used an affirmative action program to help its school attain and maintain a diverse student body. So when Barbara Grutter was rejected from the University of Michigan Law School she filed suit against the university in 1997 just as Cheryl Hopwood had done only 5 years before. The defendant was Lee Bollinger, the president of the university and proponent of the affirmative action program at the University of Michigan. Judge Bernard A. Friedman of the US District Court finally gave the ruling in 2001 for the plaintiff, claiming that the University of Michigan's affirmative action program was nothing more than a quota system which considers race as the dominant factor, and was thus unconstitutional. However, in May of 2002 the Sixth District Court of Appeals reversed the decision and ruled in favor of the defendant, claiming that it was constitutional since it helped increase diversity, citing the Bakke case as precedent. The case was then appealed to the Supreme Court and arguments were heard in 2003.

The Verdict: The Supreme Court reaffirmed the Court of Appeals ruling, stating that it believed that the University of Michigan's affirmative action program was constitutional because it was reaping the benefits of a diverse student body. However, the court also made it clear that it expected within 25 years time that affirmative action programs should no longer be needed, making it clear that it did not see affirmative action as a permanent policy.

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