As noted, by the time the case came to the Supreme Court Mr. DeFunis was in his third year of law school, registered for his final semester of law school, and poised to receive his J.D. As a result, the Court held that the case was moot and vacated the judgment of the Washington Supreme Court. However, Justice Douglas, in his dissenting opinion, provided an analysis that foreshadowed the majority opinion of the Court in Bakke.
Justice Douglas noted that he could agree with the Washington Supreme Court’s decision only to the extent that the admissions policy is truly racially neutral. In that regard, he did not find consideration of race completely unconstitutional as he seemed to favor a method that considered all aspects of an applicant holistically, much like the process afforded to the minority applicants of the Law School. The only difference was that he seemed to advocate for employing this system in selecting all candidates, not simply using it on the basis of race. He likened the separate admissions system to creating a “badge of inferiority” similar to the system of segregation found to be unconstitutional by the Brown v. Board of Education Court. He ultimately found the record to be lacking on the issue of racial neutrality and concluded that Washington Supreme Court decision should be overturned and remanded for a new trial aimed at determining this issue. Further, he suggested that consideration of diverse applicants in a race neutral way may be “the key to the problem.” Though he also noted that educators and administrators should still be afforded wide-deference in their admission policies, albeit within certain constitutional limits. This in many ways foreshadowed the race-neutral, wide deference policy favored by the majority opinion in Bakke. Of course, Justice Douglas’ opinion was a dissenting opinion and DeFunis was never decided on its merits. So, considering Bakke was decided a mere four years later, it was certainly a long time coming.
In short, the DeFunis decision, served to bring affirmative action policies in higher education to the forefront of legal discussion. The opinion sparked numerous articles regarding the issues of mootness as well as the central issues of the case. Namely whether preferential race-based admission policies are constitutional and under what circumstances can admissions policies even consider race. So while many in the legal community, as well as higher education administrators, may have hoped for an opinion with more substantive guidance, DeFunis was the catalyst to more meaningful debates regarding affirmative action.