IN 2006, A MAJORITY of Michigan voters amended their state constitution to outlaw the use of race in college admissions. Supporters of affirmative action challenged that amendment in court; in April, the U.S. Supreme Court (in a case known as Schuette vs. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action) affirmed Michigan’s right to ban the use of affirmative action by public universities.
Justice Sonya Sotomayor issued a 58-page dissent with a blistering critique of the court’s ruling. Sotomayor pointed out the illogic of the majority opinion that the case was about the voters’ right to self-governance. “This case,” she wrote, “is about how the debate over the use of race-sensitive admissions policies may be resolved ... that is, it must be resolved in constitutionally permissible ways.”
Sotomayor explained in her dissent that “by permitting a majority of the voters in Michigan to do what our Constitution forbids, the Court ends the debate over race-sensitive admissions policies in Michigan in a manner that contravenes constitutional protections long recognized in our precedents.” In other words, if we allow the majority to rule without limits, then affirmative action is effectively dead.
Prior to the 2006 vote, admissions policies were governed by institutions’ own governing boards. Citizens could influence admissions policy by utilizing the mechanisms within the political structure of the board, by lobbying board members, or voting them in or out in statewide elections. The 2006 vote changed the structure of Michigan politics.
University alumni could still lobby for policies that favor their legacy students. Parents of athletes or students in a particular area of study could still lobby board members directly to alter policies in their favor. But parents of minority students were banned from utilizing the same mechanisms for their children.