WASHINGTON (CNN) — Michigan’s law banning the use of affirmative action in college admissions was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday, in a case that raised thorny questions over race and remedies.
The 6-2 ruling reversed a lower court’s 2013 ruling that the voter-approved affirmative action ban violated the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection guarantees. Three justices in the majority — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito — concluded that the lower court did not have the authority to set aside the law.
It is the latest step in a legal and political battle over whether state colleges can use race and gender as factors in choosing which students to admit.
“This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved. It is about who may resolve it,” Kennedy wrote in the plurality opinion. “There is no authority in the Constitution of the United States or in this court’s precedents for the judiciary to set aside Michigan laws that commit this policy determination to the voters.
“Deliberative debate on sensitive issues such as racial preferences all too often may shade into rancor. But that does not justify removing certain court-determined issues from the voters’ reach. Democracy does not presume that some subjects are either too divisive or too profound for public debate.”
In a powerful dissent read from the bench, Justice Sonia Sotomayor — the court’s first Latina — said the law “eviscerates an important strand of our equal protection jurisprudence.”
“For members of historically marginalized groups, which rely on the federal courts to protect their constitutional rights, the decision can hardly bolster hope for a vision of democracy that preserves for all the right to participate meaningfully and equally in self-government,” Sotomayor wrote.
Justices Antonin Scalia, Stephen Breyer and Clarence Thomas voted in the majority with concurring opinions. Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented; Justice Elena Kagan took no part in the case.
The law passed in a 2006 referendum, supported by 58% of Michigan voters. It bars publicly funded colleges from granting “preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.”
That prompted a series of lawsuits and appeals from a coalition of civil rights groups and University of Michigan faculty and students, who countered that the law restructured the political process to make it harder for minority groups to enact policies benefiting them, in possible violation of the 14th Amendment.