The Grutter case was brought by a law school applicant whose application was rejected by the University of Michigan’s Law School. The mission of the law school’s highly competitive admission process was to achieve “a mix of students with varying backgrounds and experiences who will respect and learn from one another.” Criteria for admissions included test scores and undergraduate performance but those factors were not determinative of an admission offer. The school examined a host of “soft variables” in making admission decisions, including recommendation letters, quality of the undergraduate institution, and quality of the student’s admission essay, all to assess an applicant’s likely contribution to the intellectual and social life of the institution.
The law school’s admissions program examined a host of subjective factors that included race and ethnicity of students. “Underrepresented” racial and ethnic minority applicants (i.e., Black, Latino, Native American) were looked upon favorably because they helped achieve the school’s mission of student diversity. Evidence presented by the law school suggested that without the school’s affirmative action policy, an underrepresented minority applicant’s average chance of admission would decrease from 35 percent to 10 percent.
Barbara Grutter is a white Michigander who filed suit after her application was rejected, alleging the law school’s admission policy was unconstitutional. She alleged that the school was making race a “predominate” factor in admission decisions and that in doing so, the school intentionally discriminated against white applicants and violated the Equal Protection Clause. In its defense, the law school maintained the admissions program simply sought a “critical mass” of underrepresented minorities in each entering class. The district court found for Grutter, ruling the policy was unconstitutional. Sitting en banc, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision and Grutter appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for 5-4 majority in favor of the University of Michigan’s Law School. Applying the logic from Justice Powell’s opinion in Bakke, the Court ruled that Michigan’s affirmative action program was constitutional. The school’s interest in promoting student diversity was sufficiently “compelling,” and its holistic review of each applicant’s file was “narrowly tailored.” It did not employ a quota system (like Bakke) and provided for individualized review of applicants. Membership in a minority race or ethnic category was merely a “plus factor” among many in the admissions decision. Diversity, in turn, led to a series of valuable educational outcomes and “better prepared” students for life and work in an increasingly diverse society.