(DETROIT FREE PRESS) - The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a ban on using race in admissions to Michigan's public universities.
The court was divided on the case, which overturns a U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals decision.
The opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, says the case is not about race admissions policies but about whether voters in a state can choose to prohibit consideration of racial preferences.
"The plurality opinion stresses that the case is not about the constitutionality or the merits of race-conscious admission policies in higher education. Rather, the question concerns whether and in what manner voters in a state may chose to prohibit consideration of such racial preferences," Kennedy wrote. "Where States have prohibited race-conscious admissions policies, universities have responded by experimenting 'with a wide variety of alternative approaches.' The decision by Michigan voters reflects the ongoing national dialogue about such practices."
Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Antonin Scalia, Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Clarence Thomas all filed concurring opinions.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from the case.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette praised the decision.
"The U.S. Supreme Court made the right call today," Schuette said. "Our state constitution requires equal treatment in college admissions, because it is fundamentally wrong to treat people differently based on the color of their skin. A majority of Michigan voters embraced the ideal of equal treatment in 2006, and today their decision was affirmed."
George Washington, who argued the case for the group By Any Means Neccesary, criticized the ruling.
"This is a terrible ruling. It gives the white majority the right to deny black and Latinos the right to higher education. It is today's Plessy v. Ferguson ruling.
"We will fight it by every means possible.
"The Supreme Court has made it clear they want to repeal the gains of the Civil Rights movement."
The case centers on Proposal 2, called the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative.
The appeals court said the state ban on affirmative action violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution by making it more difficult for a minority student to get a university to adopt a race-conscious admissions policy than for a white student to get a university to adopt an admissions policy that considers family and alumni connections.
The ballot initiative was pushed by Jennifer Gratz, who was denied admission to the University of Michigan and sued, and by Ward Connerly, a former University of California regent who backed a similar voter initiative in that state.
Michigan voters approved the ban, 58%-42%.
More than 10 years ago, U-M was involved in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling governing race and universities in two companion lawsuits, one filed by Gratz and others over undergraduate admissions policies. The high court upheld the U-M Law School's use of race as a consideration in admissions as long as there were no quotas attached, but threw out the undergraduate admissions system that awarded extra points to African-American, Hispanic and Native American students.
It was considered a win for U-M, despite the ruling on undergraduate admissions.
Proposal 2 erased U-M's court victory by banning the state's universities and other public institutions from considering an applicant's minority status or gender in their admissions or hiring processes.
"The ruling has no effect on our policies, which already are consistent with Proposal 2 of 2006," said U-M spokesman Rick Fitzgerald. "We remain committed to the goal of a diverse, academically excellent, student body and will continue to seek to achieve that goal in ways that comply with the law."
Gratz, in a news release, cheered Tuesday's ruling.
"Much progress has been made over the past 15 years in challenging discriminatory policies based on race preferences and moving toward colorblind government," Gratz stated. "Today's ruling preserves this foundation and is a clear signal that states are moving in the right direction when they do away with policies that treat people differently based on race, gender, ethnicity or skin color."