This Day in Supreme Court History—April 22, 2014

On this day in 2014 the Supreme Court announced its opinion in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action.

The case involved a 2006 amendment to the Michigan constitution, approved by a statewide referendum, that prohibited “all sex- and race-based preferences” in public education, employment, and contracting. The referendum was organized in response to Grutter v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision upholding the University of Michigan Law School’s use of affirmative action. Following passage of the amendment, an alliance of progressive interest groups—the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and Immigration Rights and Fight for Equality by Any Means Necessary—challenged the amendment in court, claiming that it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Court denied the challengers’ claim. Six justices agreed that Michigan’s amendment did not run afoul of the U.S. Constitution, although they divided on their reasoning. Writing the opinion of the Court, Justice Kennedy insisted that the case was not about the constitutionality of using race as a factor in determining admissions, but whether states can choose to prohibit race preferences. This issue should be determined by the voters, Kennedy insisted, and nothing in the Constitution prevented them from concluding that government use of race classifications could “perpetuate the same racism such policies were meant to alleviate.”

The case produced several concurring opinions. Justice Scalia made clear his belief that the Equal Protection Clause not only did not prevent Michigan from adopting this policy, but that it required them to do so. Justice Breyer, who unlike the other justices in the majority had been a consistent defender of the constitutionality of affirmative action, wrote his own concurrence, emphasizing that regardless of one’s view on affirmative action, this was a matter that Michigan’s voters should be allowed to decide for themselves.

Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg dissented. (Justice Kagan had worked on this case when she was Solicitor General and recused herself.) Justice Sotomayor wrote the dissenting opinion on behalf of herself and Justice Ginsburg, and, for the first time in her five years on the Supreme Court, she chose to read her dissent from the bench. In previous postings on this blog, I analyzed in some detail Sotomayor’s first oral dissent. Most of the remainder of this post draws from from those previous posts (available in full here and here):

That Justice Sotomayor chose this particular case for her first oral dissent makes sense. As various media accounts have noted, she has been outspoken in her support for affirmative action programs. In her memoir, Justice Sotomayor recognized that affirmative action played a critical role in her own life. During oral arguments in the Schuette case, she was particularly aggressive in challenging the lawyer defending the affirmative action ban. Her lengthy written dissent, which was joined by Justice Ginsberg, is impassioned and direct. Considering all this, it would be more surprising if she had chosen not to announce her dissent from the bench.


Justice Sotomayor’s announcement runs about twelve minutes. She reads her statement in a tone that is careful, controlled, as well as clearly frustrated with the direction the Court has taken. She draws the language of her bench dissent from excerpts of her written opinion, with some reordering of arguments and minor editing.

Toward the end of her bench announcement (at about 9:40 in the audio), however, she shifts gears, arguing why she believes there is still a need for race-conscious admissions policies in universities. Here she reads excerpts from the most controversial portion of her written dissent. This is the section in which she challenges her colleagues for “question[ing] the wisdom of using race sensitive admissions policies in the first place.” This is the section that moved Chief Justice Roberts to write a concurring opinion specifically to rebut her characterization of the majority’s position….

According to Adam Liptak of the New York Times, “[s]everal of her colleagues seemed tense, impatient and grim as she spoke.”) She concluded her inaugural oral dissent by reading this impassioned language from the text of her written dissent:

The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination. As members of the judiciary tasked with intervening to carry out the guarantee of equal protection, we ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society. It is this view that works harm, by perpetuating the facile notion that what makes race matter is acknowledging the simple truth that race does matter, and that it has influenced and continues to influence voters’ decisions to deny minorities meaningful and equal access to the political process.

Chief Justice Roberts wrote a short concurrence to take issue with Justice Sotomayor’s effort to frame the case as about the constitutionality of affirmative action rather than about deference to the decision making of Michigan’s voters. He wrote: “To disagree with the dissent’s views on the costs and benefits of racial preferences is not to ‘wish away, rather than confront’ racial inequality. People can disagree in good faith on this issue, but it similarly does more harm than good to question the openness and candor of those on either side of the debate.”

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