Appeals Court Allows Rights Groups to Enter Affirmative Action Battle in Michigan

Affiliate: ACLU of Michigan
August 10, 1999 12:00 am

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DETROIT — A federal appeals court ruled today that African American and Latino high school students here have a “direct and substantial” interest in the outcome of a lawsuit over the University of Michigan’s affirmative action policies and should be allowed to participate in a pending trial.

The decision by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reverses a lower court’s October 1998 ruling excluding the students from the case. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the national ACLU, members of the legal coalition acting on the students’ behalf, welcomed today’s ruling.

“As the appeals court recognized, a ban on affirmative action in University admissions directly threatens the chances that qualified African American and Latino applicants will be admitted,” said Michael J. Steinberg, Legal Director of the ACLU of Michigan.

Other coalition members are the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Citizens for Affirmative Action’s Preservation (based in Detroit).

In the lawsuit, Gratz v. Bollinger, two white students are claiming that the University of Michigan’s admissions policy constitutes “discrimination.” Although the students claim to support equal opportunity, the civil rights coalition members argue that with the lawsuit they have, in fact, launched an all-out attack on one of the fairest, most effective tools for ending discrimination.

“The sad truth is that racial discrimination in America is not just a thing of the past,” Steinberg said. “The Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause does not bar universities from pursuing diversity.”

Indeed, he said, the simplest way to understand what is at stake in this controversy is to examine the recent experiences of the University of California and the University of Texas, where minority enrollment plummeted when those schools’ affirmative action plans were dismantled.

The court found those numbers significant as well, noting that the “recent experiences in California and Texas” leave “little room for doubt” that a ban on affirmative action may result in “a substantial decline in the enrollment of these students…if the University is precluded from considering race as a factor in admissions.”

The University of Michigan is the state’s flagship public institution of higher education and a leader in promoting racial diversity. In seeking to enter the case, the rights coalition argued that the University, faced with internal and external institutional pressures, might not adequately protect their clients’ interests. They also argued that the University is at less risk of harm than the students if it loses this case.

The court agreed with that analysis as well. “We find persuasive their argument that the University is unlikely to present evidence of past discrimination by the University itself or of the disparate impact of some current admissions criteria …[.],” the court wrote.

In issuing its ruling today, the court also granted a motion to intervene in a concurrent case, Grutter v. Bollinger, brought against the University of Michigan’s law school.

Gratz v. Bollinger, Civil Action No. 97-75321, will now likely move forward to a trial under federal judge Patrick J. Duggan in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, where the case was originally filed.

Motions and briefs of proposed intervenors in Gratz v. Bollinger can be found at:

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