Civil rights, student groups launch campaign targeting Prop. 209

A coalition of civil rights and student groups launched a statewide campaign Wednesday to support efforts to overturn California’s Proposition 209, which prohibits public universities from considering race and gender in admissions decisions.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear arguments Feb. 13 in San Francisco from opponents who contend that the measure is unconstitutional.

Although the law has been upheld by the California Supreme Court, opponents cite a July opinion by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which overturned a similar law in Michigan, as new ammunition for their cause.


“We have an historic opportunity to repeal Prop. 209 if we can get the 9th Circuit to do the same as the 6th Circuit,” Leon Jenkins, president of the L.A. chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, said at a news conference. “California has the most diverse population on the planet and that should be reflected in its schools and universities.”

The group is urging individuals and organizations to attend the court hearing and to file friend of the court briefs in favor of striking down the law.

Proposition 209 was passed by California voters in 1996 and amended the state Constitution to bar consideration of race, sex or ethnicity in public education, employment and contracting. Its supporters say the law enshrines the principle of equal treatment for all residents.

But the numbers of black and Latino students admitted to the University of California plummeted after the initiative’s passage, especially at its most competitive campuses. Critics say they remain too low.

In the Michigan decision, a three-judge panel ruled that the state’s ban violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and reordered the “political place special burdens on minority interests.”

The ruling was appealed and will be heard by the full 6th District panel.

Still, civil rights groups are hoping the decision will sway the 9th Circuit justices, who are hearing an appeal of a U.S. District Court decision last December that dismissed a lawsuit challenging California’s law. Both the Michigan and California challenges were filed by the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary.

Ward Connerly, the former UC regent who led efforts to enact both laws, said he does not expect a setback.

“The courts have repeatedly reaffirmed the principle behind Prop. 209 and Michigan’s initiative too,” Connerly said. “It’s a free country and they have the right to keep trying, but at some point I would hope that they would accept that equal treatment means equal treatment.”