Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hamacher were white Michigan residents who applied for admission to the College of Literature, Science & the Arts at the University of Michigan in the late 1990’s. Both were denied admission and told that, although they were qualified, they were not competitive enough applicants to be admitted on the first review. They were later denied admission and enrolled at other universities.
In October 1997, Gratz and Hamacher filed a class action alleging the admissions procedure discriminated against certain racial and ethnic groups in violation of the Equal Protection Clause. Gratz and Hamacher, and the potential class sought injunctive, declaratory, and monetary relief. The District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan certified the class, which consisted of individuals who were denied admission to the College of Literature, Science & the Arts from 1995 forward and were members of racial or ethnic groups that the school treated less favorably, like Caucasians. The Court further bifurcated the Petitioner’s complaint into a “liability’ and “damages” phase. The “liability” question posed to the District Court was whether the university’s use of race as a factor in admissions decisions violated the Equal Protection Clause.
During the trial, University admissions counselors presented a considerable amount of evidence showing the admissions protocol was designed to use race as only a factor when analyzing applications and determining who would be offered a spot at the school. Each applicant was ranked on a 150-point scale, where receipt of 100-points all but guaranteed admission. Specifically, each application received points based on high school grade point average, standardized test scores, academic quality of an applicant’s high school, the strength or weakness of high school curriculum, in-state residency, alumni relationship, a personal essay, and personal achievement or leadership. Of particular significance to the court, under a “miscellaneous” category, an applicant was entitled to 20 points based upon his or her membership in an underrepresented racial or ethnic minority group or “attendance at a predominantly minority or disadvantaged high school.”
The District Court found the use of race unconstitutional and the case was appealed to the Sixth Circuit. The Court of Appeal heard the case on the same day as Grutter v. Bollinger. The Sixth Circuit issued an opinion upholding the admissions program in Grutter, and the petitioners asked the Supreme Court to grant certiorari before the Sixth Circuit issued an opinion.
In a 6-3 decision written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the Supreme Court held the admissions program was unconstitutional and violated the Equal Protection Clause. It found that automatic distribution of 20 points to every single “underrepresented minority” applicant solely because of race was not narrowly tailored to achieve the interest in educational diversity Michigan claimed to justify their program. Applying Justice Powell’s analysis from Bakke, the Court held that automatic distribution of points to minority candidates had the effect of making race a decisive factor for “virtually every minimally qualified underrepresented minority applicant.” While not as tangible as the set-aside scheme at issue in Bakke, the means and point system employed by the Michigan admissions program were not narrowly tailored enough to withstand strict scrutiny. As such, the university’s race-conscious affirmative action program was declared unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause.