Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003), was a landmark case in which the United States Supreme Court upheld the affirmative action admissions policy of the University of Michigan Law School. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing for the majority in a 5–4 decision and joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, ruled that the University of Michigan Law School had a compelling interest in promoting class diversity. The Court held that a race-conscious admissions process that may favor “underrepresented minority groups”, but that also took into account many other factors evaluated on an individual basis for every applicant, did not amount to a quota system that would have been unconstitutional under Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. The Court applied strict scrutiny that it claimed was made “no less strict” when it followed a “tradition of giving a degree of deference” “within constitutionally prescribed limits” to the university regarding the compelling nature of its interest in diversity.
Justices Ginsburg and Breyer concurred in judgment, but stated that they did not subscribe to the Court’s belief that the affirmative measures in question would be unnecessary in 25 years.
Chief Justice Rehnquist, joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy and Thomas, dissented, arguing that the university’s “plus” system was, in fact, a thinly veiled and unconstitutional quota system. Rehnquist cited that the percentage of African American applicants closely mirrored the percentage of African American applicants that were accepted.
Justice Kennedy also dissented separately, arguing that the Court failed to apply, in fact, strict scrutiny as required by Justice Powell’s opinion in Bakke. Both Scalia and Thomas also dissented separately.
When the University of Michigan Law School denied admission to Barbara Grutter, a Michigan resident with a 3.8 GPA and 161 LSAT score, she filed this suit, alleging that respondents had discriminated against her on the basis of race in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as 42 U.S.C. § 1981; that she was rejected because the Law School uses race as a “predominant” factor, giving applicants belonging to certain minority groups a significantly greater chance of admission than students with similar credentials from disfavored racial groups; and that respondents had no compelling interest to justify that use of race. Lee Bollinger (then-President of the University of Michigan), was the named defendant of this case.
The University argued that there was a compelling state interest to ensure a “critical mass” of students from minority groups, particularly African Americans and Hispanics, which is realized within the student body. They argued that this aims to “ensure that these minority students do not feel isolated or like spokespersons for their race; to provide adequate opportunities for the type of interaction upon which the educational benefits of diversity depend; and to challenge all students to think critically and re-examine stereotypes.”