Thursday, November 15, 2012
In its opinion today in Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action v. Regents of the University of Michigan, the en banc Sixth Circuit has declared Michigan's anti-affirmative action constitutional amendment, passed in 2006 as a ballot initiative Proposal 2, unconstitutional.
The majority opinion, written by Judge Cole, and joined in full by seven other judges, and in part by others, applies the "political-process" doctrine of Equal Protection Clause. Disagreeing, there is a splintering of five other mostly dissenting opinions, joined by various other judges, with two judges not participating.
The opinion begins with a concrete illustration of the "political process" doctrine:
A student seeking to have her family’s alumni connections considered in her application to one of Michigan’s esteemed 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 the 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.
The court specifically discounted the Supreme Court's decisions in Grutter and Gratz - - - which arose in Michigan and prompted Proposal 2 - - - by stating it was "neither required nor inclined to weigh in on the constitutional status or relative merits of race-conscious admissions policies as such." Indeed, the majority charges the dissenters with seeking to take a "second bite" at Grutter. Instead, the constitutional challenge involved a "state amendment that alters the process by which supporters of permissible race-conscious admissions policies may seek to enact those policies."
With this interpretation, the court looked to Washington v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1, 458 U.S. 457 (1982) and Hunter v. Erickson, 393 U.S. 385 (1969), cases that
expounded the rule that an enactment deprives minority groups of the equal protection of the laws when it: (1) has a racial focus, targeting a policy or program that “inures primarily to the benefit of the minority”; and (2) reallocates political power or reorders the decisionmaking process in a way that places special burdens on a minority group’s ability to achieve its goals through that process.
The court then applied the rule to conclude that Proposal 2 targets a program that “inures primarily to the benefit of the minority” and reorders the political process in Michigan in a way that places special burdens on racial minorities."
Interestingly, the en banc majority rejected any distinction based upon the race benefited or burdened:
The Attorney General and the dissenters assert that Hunter and Seattle are inapplicable to Proposal 2 because those cases only govern enactments that burden racial minorities’ ability to obtain protection from discrimination through the political process, whereas Proposal 2 burdens racial minorities’ ability to obtain preferential treatment. At bottom, this is an argument that an enactment violates the Equal Protection Clause under Hunter and Seattle only if the political process is distorted to burden legislation providing constitutionally-mandated protections, such as anti-discrimination laws. Under this theory, a state may require racial minorities to endure a more burdensome process than all other citizens when seeking to enact policies that are in their favor if those policies are constitutionally permissible but not constitutionally required. This effort to drive a wedge between the political-process rights afforded when seeking anti- discrimination legislation and so-called preferential treatment is fundamentally at odds with Seattle.
The only way to find the Hunter/Seattle doctrine inapplicable to the enactment of preferential treatment is to adopt a strained reading that ignores the preferential nature of the legislation at issue in Seattle, and inaccurately recast it as anti-discrimination legislation.
None of the opinions mention the recently argued case of Fisher v. Texas. If the United States Supreme Court were to take a very broad approach and declare that all racial affirmative action policies in education were per se unconstitutional, the rationale of today's opinion in Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action would be seriously undermined.
[image: "Women's Studies Turns 40" from the University of Michigan, via]