WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court's conservative justices signaled Tuesday they are likely to uphold a Michigan voter initiative that forbids its state universities from granting "preferential treatment" to applicants because of their race.
The Michigan measure was modeled on a law adopted by California's voters in 1996, but it was struck down last year by a federal appeals court in Ohio. Those judges said the state's voters, most of whom are white, had taken away a special admission policy that helped bring racial diversity to the state campuses.
A Michigan state attorney urged the high court to reject that decision. "It does not violate equal protection [under the Constitution] to require equal treatment," said state Solicitor General John Bursch. He said the voters had done no more than "repeal preferences" based on a student's race.
Much of the hourlong argument turned into a debate on what is meant by equal treatment under law. The conservatives said that ignoring a student's race constituted equal treatment, while the liberals said that ignoring the race of black and Latino students denied them true equality under the law as required under the 14th Amendment.
Ending affirmative action would “bring back segregation” to Michigan’s universities, Sotomayor said. The voters took away “the one tool” that could bring racial diversity to the
But a majority of the justices have been skeptical of race-based admissions policies, and they seemed ready to uphold the Michigan measure.
“The whole point of the equal protection clause is to take race off the table,” Chief Justice
Mark Rosenbaum, an
But most of the precedents he cited were at least 30 years old, and they do not appear to have much support on the current court. Justice
If the high court were to strike down the Michigan measure, it probably would spell the end for California's Proposition 209. The two measures use the same wording. California Atty. Gen. Harris and the chancellors of the University of California system filed friend-of the-court briefs on the side of the challengers.
But to win, Rosenbaum needs the vote of at least one of the five conservative-leaning justices, and it did not appear that he had succeeded in winning a convert during the oral argument.