Supreme Court upholds Michigan affirmative action ban

The US Supreme Court Building in Washington DC on 31 March 2012 Justice Kennedy said the court lacked the authority to overrule the will of the Michigan voters in this particular case

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The US Supreme Court has upheld a voter-approved ban on racial preferences in university admissions in the US state of Michigan.

In a 6-2 ruling, the court said voters there had the right to prohibit public universities from taking race into account in admissions decisions.

It was the latest blow to the 1960s civil rights movement-era system of race-based preferences in admissions.

The decision could spur other states to push for similar ballot initiatives.

"This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved. It is about who may resolve it," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion in the case of Schuette v Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action.

"The courts may not disempower the voters from choosing which path to follow," he added of the court's decision to reject a challenge to the constitutional amendment, passed by Michigan's white-majority electorate in 2006.

In his opinion, Justice Kennedy wrote that nothing in the US constitution nor case law provided the court with the authority to undermine the state's election results on the matter.

But in a stinging dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic person to sit on the high court, castigated the majority for allowing white voters to undermine the opportunities for advancement that race-based preferences offer to minority Americans.

'Equilibrium'

In her opinion joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she placed the 2006 constitutional amendment in a historical context in which the US "has denied to many of its citizens the right to participate meaningfully adequately in its politics".

"Under our constitution, majority rule is not without limit," she wrote. "Our system of government is predicated on an equilibrium between the notion that a majority of citizens may determine governmental policy through legislation enacted by their elected representatives, and the overriding principle that there are nonetheless some things the constitution forbids even a majority of citizens to do.

"Without checks, democratically approved legislation can oppress minority groups."

Justice Elena Kagan withdrew from the case. She had worked on it in her previous role as a lawyer in the US justice department.

The case is the latest in recent years in which the Supreme Court has limited or overturned states' efforts to promote admission of racial minority students to public universities.

In 2003, the court banned Michigan's public universities from explicitly considering an applicant's race in the admission process, using a point system. In response, the University of Michigan revised its admissions process, with the new process allowing limited use of racial preferences.

Subsequently, voters in 2006 passed a constitutional amendment that barred the state from "discriminating against or granting preferential treatment for any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, colour, ethnicity, or national origin".

In response to that, a group called the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary challenged the 2006 constitutional amendment.

The group and other associated plaintiffs argued that it denied minority students the opportunity to propose to the universities' governors a system of race-based preferences needed to admit significant numbers of minority students.

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