I was just on CNN discussing the decision in Schuette v. BAMN, reversing the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and declaring that the citizens of Michigan have the constitutional authority to prohibit racial and other preferences in university admissions. We addressed this case this term in my Supreme Court class and the students voted not only in the same way as the majority today but predicted this result. What was surprising was the vote — 6-2. Only Justice Sotomayor and Ginsberg voted to upheld the Sixth Circuit.
This is clearly a breakthrough decision for those who have opposed racial and other preferences in admissions. In the past, these issues have inevitably ended up in the courts as the final arbiter of the constitutionality of affirmative action programs. Now, the Supreme Court is saying overwhelmingly that citizens can make these decisions for themselves. It creates a clear avenue by which affirmative action could be curtailed by direct action of the voters — bringing clarity that many have sought for decades of conflicted judicial rulings. Seven states have similar rules but this decision is likely to encourage others to follow suit.
Justice Kennedy wrote the main decision, which limited the political-process line of cases represented by Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District. Kennedy stressed that “This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved. It is about who may resolve it.” In the view of the majority “[t]here 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. . . Democracy does not presume that some subjects are either too divisive or too profound for public debate.”
Justice Scalia wanted to go even further and get rid of much of that jurisprudence. However, this decision is potentially sweeping enough for most of the justices. Chief Justice Roberts and Alito joined Kennedy though Roberts filed a concurring opinion. Thomas joined with Scalia in his concurrence in arguing to go all the way in gutting the political-process line of cases. Justice Breyer concurred in the judgment while Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg dissented. Justice Kagan probably would have joined in that dissent but recused herself. Even with Kagan however the vote would still have been lopsided at 6-3. Instead, it stands at 6-2. That is a sharp departure from the historically razor thin margins in cases like Grutter, Gratz, and others.
Sotomayor wrote a 58 page dissent (longer than all of the other opinions combined) and objected that the Court needed to limit voters because “without checks, democratically approved legislation can oppress minority groups.”
At 58 pages, Sotomayor’s dissent was longer than the combined length of the four opinions in support of the outcome.
In our vote, the Supreme Court seminar voted 11-4 in favor of reversing the Sixth Circuit and 11-4 in predicting that that “other Supreme Court” would also reverse. The United States Supreme Court (while producing multiple opinions) proved less ideologically divided in the outcome than the Sixth Circuit. On the lower court decision upholding the dismissal of the action, the eight judges in the majority were nominees by Democratic presidents while the seven judges in dissent were appointed by Republican presidents.
Here is the opinion.