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Equal Access to the Tools of Political Change; The Sixth Circuit’s Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action Case Is Destined For the Supreme Court

One of the most closely watched cases—if not the most closely watched case—on this year’s Supreme Court docket is the challenge to the University of Texas’ race-based affirmative action program, Fisher v. University of Texas.  In Fisher, the Court will decide whether the Constitution leaves any room for public universities to use the race of individual student applicants in the admissions process. To put the point more technically, the Court will decide whether the “strict judicial scrutiny” applied to such programs is always fatal or, instead, allows a narrow space for public institutions to undertake such programs in order to enhance the racial diversity of the student body.

Assuming that the Court does not entirely foreclose race-based affirmative action in Fisher (and, as I explained in an earlier column, Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose vote will probably be dispositive, is unlikely to go that far), the Court will then likely have to take up another affirmative action case, this one recently decided by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals sitting en banc.

The Sixth Circuit case, Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action v. Regents of the University of Michigan, focuses not on whether a state may permissibly make use of race-based programs, but rather (somewhat non-obviously) on how a state that tries to abolish affirmative action may, in doing so, violate the Constitution.

The Background of Michigan’s Proposal 2, and the Sixth Circuit’s Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action Case

The Sixth Circuit’s en banc decision, handed down about a week after last month’s election, invalidated Proposal 2, a voter-initiated amendment to the Michigan Constitution.  Proposal 2, adopted six years ago, was itself seemingly prompted by the Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger.  In that case, involving a race-based admissions program used by the University of Michigan law school, the Court, by a 5-4 vote, held that although a state’s use of race to classify individuals is “suspect” and triggers “strict judicial scrutiny” under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, a narrowly tailored plan in which the race of higher education applicants is considered alongside numerous other factors, in order to admit a critical mass of minority students, is a permissible way to accomplish the compelling government interest of ensuring a diverse law school student body.

Proposal 2 responded to Grutter by amending the Michigan Constitution to completely forbid Michigan’s public colleges and universities from granting “preferential treatment to[] any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.” Proposal 2 thus attempted to close, as a matter of state constitutional law, the small window of federally permissible race-based affirmative action that had been identified in Grutter.  The 8-7 en banc ruling by the Sixth Circuit (following up on a 2-1 ruling by a three-judge panel of the same court earlier this year), reflects an attempt to keep that window open, at least for the moment.

To understand the Sixth Circuit case and the issues it raises, let us start by remembering that most race-based affirmative action programs are in no way required by the Constitution—and indeed are, as noted above, assessed by the courts under a stringent standard dictated by the Fourteenth Amendment.  The programs at issue, designed to diversify public institutions (and also perhaps to provide some remedy for past discrimination against racial minorities), are voluntary, in that nothing in the federal Constitution requires their existence.  How then,  readers may wonder, can their abolition be even arguably problematic under the federal Constitution?

The answer, derived from a group of Supreme Court cases decided a generation ago, lies in the fact that sometimes programs (like affirmative action) that benefit minorities are abolished in a way that leaves all programs that benefit other groups untouched, and that makes reenactment of the programs that minorities prefer especially difficult.  And when minorities are subjected to greater political obstacles in the adoption (or readoption) of the programs they might support than are other groups, such disparate political-process treatment, said the Supreme Court, raises equal protection problems.

Consider, for example, the 1969 Supreme Court case of Hunter v. Erickson.  In Hunter, the people of Akron, Ohio—responding to an ordinance that prohibited racial discrimination in housing that had been enacted by the City Council—amended the city charter to prevent the implementation of any such ordinance that had failed to gain the express approval of a majority of Akron voters.

The amended charter defined the ordinances that were to be subject to the newly created popular-approval requirement as those laws regulating real estate transactions “on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin or ancestry . . . .”  The charter amendment, the Court pointed out, “not only suspended the operation of the existing ordinance forbidding housing discrimination, but also required approval of the electors before any future [housing discrimination] ordinance could take effect.”

By an 8-1 margin, the Justices struck down the charter amendment as a violation of equal protection. The Court declined to rest its decision on a finding of racist intent on the part of voters (which today would be a conventional rationale for invalidating laws that seem to reflect invidious attitudes towards racial minorities). Instead, the Court nullified the law because it effectively drew a “racial classification [which] treat[ed] racial housing matters differently [and less favorably]” than other matters.

The Court found it crucial that the law, while neutral on its face in the sense that it drew no distinctions among racial and religious groups, would nonetheless uniquely disadvantage the beneficiaries of antidiscrimination laws—racial minorities—by forcing such laws to run a legislative gauntlet of popular approval that other laws, and thus other interest groups, were spared.

A dozen years later, in Washington v. Seattle School District No. 1, the Court applied and extended Hunter in a way that has direct implications for the Sixth Circuit’s treatment of Proposal 2. The essential background of the Seattle case is this: In order to cure widespread de facto racial segregation in Seattle-area schools, Seattle School District No. 1 adopted a voluntary integration plan that extensively used pupil reassignment and busing to eliminate one-race schools.  The Seattle program, in turn, prompted the people of Washington State to enact Initiative 350.

On its face, Initiative 350 provided broadly that “no school board . . . shall directly or indirectly require any student to attend a school other than [the geographically closest school].” The initiative, however, then set out so many exceptions to this prohibition that the effect on local school boards was to bar them from ordering reassignment or busing for the purpose of racial integration, but to permit them to order reassignment or busing for all other educationally valid reasons (sibling attendance, access to particular educational programs, etc).

By a 5-4 vote, the Court struck down the plebiscite. As in Hunter, the Court declined to rest its holding on a finding of invidious intent on the part of the electorate. Instead, the Court invalidated Initiative 350 because it singled out racial busing—a program of particular importance to racial minorities—and moved it from the control of local decision-making bodies to central management at the statewide level, where minorities were less likely to enjoy democratic success; if racial busing—but racial busing alone—were ever to be reenacted anywhere in the state, its proponents would need to lobby and win at the state, rather than the local school district, level. This selective and unfavorable treatment of public programs that were distinctively beneficial to minorities, the Court held, denied such minorities the equal protection right to “full participation in the political life of the community.”

In both of these cases, the Supreme Court applied (with varying degrees of clarity) a two-pronged test: First, someone who challenges a given law must show that the law in question is “racial” or “race-based” in “character,” in that it singles out for special treatment issues that are particularly associated with minority interests.

Second, the challenger must show that the law imposes an unfair political-process burden with regard to these “minority issues” by entrenching their unfavorable resolution at a level, or in a process, of state government where it is distinctively hard for minorities to prevail.

Strict scrutiny is triggered only if the challenger satisfies both parts of the test. A law that imposes special political-process burdens on classes that are not associated with race does not directly implicate the cases.  Similarly, a law that deals explicitly with “racial” issues but does not impose any entrenching political process burdens—for example, a law that simply repeals pro-minority policies at the same level of government at which they were originally enacted—is also unproblematic.

The Sixth Circuit’s Application of the Hunter-Seattle Doctrine

Utilizing this two-part test, the Sixth Circuit concluded that Proposal 2 was constitutionally flawed. First, it held that the measure was racial in character, in that it dealt specially with an issue—race-based affirmative action—that is of distinctive interest and benefit to racial minorities. Indeed, the racial busing programs in the Seattle case were just one type of “voluntary” race-based affirmative action; if elimination of those programs affected minorities especially, then elimination of the broader category of which they were a part would seem to do so, as well.

Moving to the second part of the test, the Sixth Circuit held that Proposal 2 dealt with this racial issue by entrenching a policy that was unfavorable to minorities at a level of government—that of the state constitution—at which minorities are less likely to succeed than they are at lower levels, such as local government or university administration. Although Michigan is free to repeal affirmative-action programs, the Sixth Circuit suggested, it cannot repeal such programs at a level higher than the one at which those programs were initially adopted, just as the State of Washington could not repeal racial busing at the statewide level, rather than the local level.

As the Sixth Circuit explained in its opening sentences, “[a] student seeking to have her family’s alumni connections considered in her applications to one of Michigan’s . . . public universities could do one of four things to have the school adopt a legacy-conscious admissions policy:  she could lobby the admissions committee, she could petition the leadership of the university, she could seek to influence the school’s governing board, or, as a measure of last resort, she could initiate a statewide campaign to alter the state’s constitution.  The same cannot be said for a black student seeking adoption of a constitutionally permissible race-conscious admissions policy.  That student could do only one thing to effect change: she could attempt to amend the Michigan Constitution—a lengthy, expensive and arduous process—to repeal the consequences of Proposal 2.  The existence of such a comparative structural burden undermines the Equal Protection Clause’s guarantee that all citizens ought to have equal access to the tools of political change.”

What Is Likely to Happen in the Supreme Court

The Sixth Circuit’s reasoning is careful, and its result is defensible under current law; there really is a powerful logical sense in which the structure and reasoning of the Seattle case applies with full force to doom Proposal 2.  But the case will almost certainly be presented to the Supreme Court, and unless the Court eliminates race-based affirmative action entirely in Fisher, the Court will most probably grant review.  The Sixth Circuit en banc ruling openly disagrees with a Ninth Circuit case from the 1990s in which that court upheld California’s state- constitutional ban on race-based affirmative action (Proposition 209) in the face of a Hunter-Seattle challenge.  Many observers (myself included) thought that the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning did not convincingly distinguish the Seattle case or otherwise explain why that case did not control, but that is neither here nor there now that there is a sharp circuit conflict that the Supreme Court will likely feel the need to resolve.

And when the Court takes the Proposal 2 case, I would expect Proposal 2 to be upheld, perhaps overwhelmingly, by the Court.  Why?  For starters, none of the Justices who were on the Court at the time of the Seattle case are still there. Stare decisis applies, to be sure, but stare decisis may tend to have more weight when some member of the Court who voted in the majority in the original case is present to defend it when the Court revisits the matter.  It also bears noting that the “liberals” on the Court today (e.g., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Steve Breyer, Elena Kagan) are not nearly so liberal as the liberals who were on the Court in the early 1980s (e.g., William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall).  (We saw some evidence of that last Term, in which Justices Breyer and Kagan joined in the 7-2 invalidation of the Medicaid spending conditions that were at issue in the Obamacare case.)

Not only has the Court’s personnel evolved; so has its doctrine.  The Seattle case and its underlying reasoning would not appear to reflect current thinking at the high Court. Over the past twenty years, City of Richmond v. J.A. Croson (an affirmative action case involving the City of Richmond) and its progeny have justified strict scrutiny for purportedly “benign” race-conscious programs by emphasizing (among other things) certain costs that affirmative action programs threaten to impose on minorities (whether uniquely or along with others).

These cases reflect an equal protection doctrine that embraces formally symmetrical rules governing members of all races, and the cases seemingly downplay the significance of traditional contextual concerns, such as the political powerlessness or historical oppression of racial minorities in particular.  The “feel” of these recent decisions thus diverges from the more nuanced and asymmetrical “feel” of Hunter and Seattle. It is for that reason that I have elsewhere written that Hunter and Seattle may not “make[] sense in today’s world.”

Of particular relevance, the Court has observed in recent decades that race-based affirmative action programs threaten to embrace and “foster harmful and divisive stereotypes,” which might “balkanize us into competing racial factions.” Proposal 2, its supporters would thus contend, does not frustrate valued minority interests. Rather, the Initiative simply moves Michigan law into line with the Supreme Court’s current disparaging attitude toward affirmative action programs. Another way of making the point is to observe that Grutter (the 2003 Michigan law school case) is the exceptional result over the last two decades; most of the time it has visited these issues, the Court has invalidated racial affirmative action, or at least urged lower courts to do so.

Finally, the societal backdrop against which the Proposal 2 case will be heard is very different from that against which the Seattle and Hunter cases arose. In those cases, the Justices in the majority may very well have smelled a rat—in the form of an evil racist motive on the part of the voters—but were too genteel to say so explicitly.

Indeed, there may be many cases in many areas of constitutional law that are, in fact, driven by unstated intuitions harbored by the Justices about impermissible legislative intent.

For example, the Court’s invalidation on federalism grounds of the so-called “Gun Free Schools Zone Act” and the “Violence Against Women Act” in the Lopez (1995) and Morrison (2000) cases, respectively, may have been partially attributable to the Court’s (unarticulated) sense that Congress was not sincerely motivated by the commercial/economic implications that these laws had, and so could not properly rely for their defense on the Commerce Clause.  (For many of those of us who taught and studied the Obamacare case, this aspect made that case—which focused on a policy choice that was sincerely motivated in significant part by economic aspirations—very different from these earlier laws that the Court had struck down.)  But for complicated reasons, the Court may not always be open about the extent to which improper legislative intent is influencing its rulings.

In any event, in Twenty-First Century Michigan, the Court may infer racist intent from Proposal 2 far less readily than it may have from a state’s ban on racial busing over 30 years ago. One possible lesson that may emerge after the Supreme Court resolved Proposal 2 is that sometimes, grounding a decision in invidious intent directly—insulting though it may seem to the polity that is rebuffed—may reduce the doctrinal complexities that are caused by more elaborate, but less intuitive, theoretical explanations of the kind offered in the Seattle case.

Vikram David AmarVikram David Amar, a Justia columnist, is the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor of Law at the University of California, Davis School of Law. He is a 1988 graduate of the Yale Law School, and a former clerk to Justice Harry Blackmun. He is a co-author, along with William Cohen and Jonathan Varat, of a major constitutional law casebook, and a co-author of several volumes of the Wright & Miller treatise on federal practice and procedure. Before teaching, Professor Amar spent a few years at the firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.
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