University of California v. Bakke challenged the admissions program used by the Medical School of the University of California at Davis.  Generally, applicants needed to have at least a 2.5 GPA.  One out of six who satisfied this requirement were invited for personal interviews with members of the admissions committee.  Each interview resulted in an admission score of 1–100, which took into account the interviewers’ summary, overall GPA, GPA in science courses, Medical College Admission Test scores, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, and other biographical data.

However, in addition to a general admissions process, the University also used a special admissions program that was only applicable to “economically and/or educationally disadvantaged” applicants and members of a minority group. While the special admissions applicants went through interviews and were given scores like the general admissions applicants, they were not subjected to the minimum GPA requirement and were interviewed by a different committee.  The University also reserved 16 spots in the entering class for special applicants.

Plaintiff Allan Bakke, a white male applicant, applied to the University in 1973 and 1974 under the general admissions program.  He was rejected both years despite having a stronger application than special applicants who were admitted.  Bakke sued in California Superior Court, alleging a violation of the Equal Protection Clause, the California Constitution, and § 601 of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, seeking both invalidation of the program and admission to the school.

The California Trial Court found the admissions program violated the Federal and State Constitutions and Title VI because it operated as a race quota, given that the special applicants were rated only against each other and 16 spots in the class were reserved for them.  It declared that the University was not permitted to take race into account in its admissions decisions and held the special admissions program unconstitutional. However, Bakke’s admission was not compelled because of a lack of proof that he would have been admitted but for the special admissions program.  Bakke appealed the portion of the trial court decision rejecting his admission, while the University appealed the decision holding its admissions program unconstitutional.

The California Supreme Court took the case directly “because of the importance of the issues involved.” On September 16, 1976, the court issued a ruling, without deciding on the state constitutional or federal statutory issues, holding the program violated the Equal Protection clause by discriminating against Bakke because of his race.  In applying a strict scrutiny level of review, it noted that although the goals of integrating the medical profession and increasing the number of physicians willing to serve members of minority groups were compelling state interests, the special admissions program was not necessary, or the least intrusive means, to achieving those goals. The California Supreme Court also found that because Mr. Bakke was discriminated against because of his race, the University had the burden of proving that the special admissions program had no effect on him being denied admission.  It initially ordered the case to be remanded to the trial court to determine this issue.  However, the University conceded it would not be able to meet its burden.  The court then amended its order for remand on October 28, 1976, and directed the trial court to enter judgment ordering Mr. Bakke’s admission.  The University filed a writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court, which stayed the California Supreme Court’s order.

On June 28, 1978, the Court issued its decision reversing in part and affirming in part the California Supreme Court’s order.  The question presented to the Court was whether the University’s admissions program violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Like the California Supreme Court, the Court began its analysis using strict scrutiny because the University was discriminating on the basis of race, a suspect classification.  This imposes the burden of showing that the purpose underlying the use of the suspect classification is “compelling” and the approach employed is “narrowly tailored,” or the least restrictive method, to achieve such purpose. Thus, the University had to prove that its use of race was necessary to fulfilling its purported purposes, which were the following:  “(i) reducing the historic deficit of traditionally disfavored minorities in medical schools and in the medical profession;” “(ii) countering the effects of societal discrimination;” “(iii) increasing the number of physicians who will practice in communities currently under-served; and (iv) obtaining the educational benefits that flow from an ethnically diverse student body.

The Court found that purpose (i), reducing the historic deficit of traditionally disfavored minorities, was invalid because “preferring members of any one group for no reason other than race or ethnic origin is discrimination for its own sake.” Purpose (ii), countering the effects of societal discrimination, was noted as being a legitimate interest to a state, but the Court explained that such an interest must be supported by “judicial, legislative, or administrative findings of constitutional or statutory violations.” Thus, purpose (ii) was also insufficient because the University was noted as an “isolated segment[] of our vast governmental structures [that is] not competent to make those decisions.” Nor did the University purport to rely on any findings from a governmental or authoritative body, which would indicate that the University’s “classification is responsive to identified discrimination.” And purpose (iii), increasing the number of physicians who will practice in communities currently underserved, failed because “there [wa]s virtually no evidence in the record indicating that [the University]’s special admissions program [wa]s either needed or geared to promote that goal.”

However, the Court did hold that purpose (iv), obtaining the educational benefits that flow from an ethnically diverse student body, was constitutionally permissible.  The problem was that the University failed to meet its burden of proving the admissions policy was appropriately tailored because it essentially amounted to a racial quota.  The Court found such quotas are not permissible because diversity encompasses more than just one or two classifications.  It encompasses a broad array of classifications.  The Court argued that permitting quotas to achieve diversity is inherently flawed in that regard.  That said, the Court did conclude that using race as a “plus” factor among other factors in an individualized admissions process could achieve this goal. Thus, while the University’s admissions process was held to be unconstitutional, the California Supreme Court’s decision was reversed as it prohibited considering race at all.  The Court did, however, agree that Bakke should be admitted to the University and affirmed that part of the California Supreme Court’s opinion.