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Court strikes down Michigan ban on affirmative action in college admissions

The voter-approved law saying race and gender can't be considered is unconstitutional, a federal appeals panel rules. California's similar ban isn't affected, but it is also under attack.

July 01, 2011|By Stephen Ceasar, Los Angeles Times
  • A three-judge panel of a federal appeals court on Friday struck down Michigan's ban on the consideration of race and gender in college admissions. Above, Michigan State University graduates in 2006.
A three-judge panel of a federal appeals court on Friday struck down Michigan's… (Associated Press )

Michigan's ban on considering race and gender in college admissions was struck down Friday by a federal appeals court, which ruled that the voter-approved law burdens minorities and is unconstitutional.

The 2-1 decision overturns Proposal 2, a law passed in 2006 that prohibits the state's public universities from giving "preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin."

The measure, which passed with 58% of the vote, forced the University of Michigan and other state schools to change their policies on admissions. The three-judge panel of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the law violates the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.

The court took issue with the manner in which the ban was enacted. Because the law amended the state's constitution, only another statewide vote could change it. This created a significant obstacle for minorities who objected to the law to overcome, ruled Judges R. Guy Cole Jr. and Martha Craig Daughtrey.

"Proposal 2 reorders the political process in Michigan to place special burdens on minority interests," they said.

The lone dissenting judge, Julia Smith Gibbons, said that Michigan's university system was not structured as part of the "political process" and that faculty members were insulated from political influence.

"The Michigan voters have therefore not restructured the political process in their state by amending their state constitution; they have merely employed it," Gibbons wrote in her partial dissent.

Mark Fancher, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which was part of a coalition that challenged the law, said the ruling would provide equal opportunity within the admissions process.

"It reopens the opportunity for minorities to not only be heard by university administrators, but have an expectation that if they can persuade the administrators that there is validity in considering their racial identity, that the university can actually act," he said.

Michigan Atty. Gen. Bill Schuette said he planned to appeal the ruling by requesting a rehearing with the entire 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. The law will remain in place pending a final decision.

The law "embodies the fundamental premise of what America is all about: equal opportunity under the law," Schuette said in a statement. "Entrance to our great universities must be based upon merit, and I will continue the fight for equality, fairness and rule of law."

Other states, including California, Arizona, Washington and Nebraska, have similar bans, but will not be affected by the Michigan decision. Only states within the 6th Circuit, which includes Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee, would be affected.

But George Washington, a Detroit-based attorney with the firm of Scheff, Washington and Driver, which filed the Michigan lawsuit, said their focus now shifts to California. The firm has appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in an attempt to overturn the state's Proposition 209.

The measure was passed by California voters in 1996. "Prop. 209 is every bit as unconstitutional as Proposal 2," he said. "It's a carbon copy."

University of California spokesman Ricardo Vazquez said UC's legal staff declined to comment Friday on the Michigan case because they needed more time to review the decision and whether it had any relevance to the ban on affirmative action in state college admissions in California.

Christine Helwick, general counsel for the Cal State University system, said Friday that she and other education officials in California will be watching the Michigan case's appeals. The case ultimately could be relevant to California if the U.S. Supreme Court hears an appeal, she said.

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com

Staff writer Larry Gordon contributed to this report.

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