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The U.S. Supreme Court by a 5-4 vote upheld the University of Michigan Law School’s admissions procedure. On the same day, in a separate case, Gratz v. Bollinger, by a 6-3 vote, the Court struck down a different admissions process being used by the University of Michigan’s undergraduate school.

In Grutter, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote the opinion for the majority. She pointed out that “context matters when reviewing race-based governmental action” and that “not every decision influenced by race is equally objectionable.” She added that “we have never held that the only governmental use of race that can survive strict scrutiny is remedying past discrimination.” She then noted that although “outright racial balancing” is “patently unconstitutional,” the law school’s “good faith” pursuit of classroom diversity was entitled to “deference.” She also accepted the law school’s argument that admitting “a critical mass” of minority students was essential to achieving student diversity and “the educational benefits that diversity is designed to produce.”

Although admitting enough minority students was essential to achieving “a critical mass,” O’Connor emphasized that, in the majority’s opinion, this did not amount to imposing a quota because it did not set aside a fixed number or percentage of class positions. Finally, she pointed out that “the law school engages in a highly individualized, holistic review of each applicant’s file in which race counts as a factor but is not used in a mechanical way.” For that reason, she stated, the law school’s policy was consistent with Justice Lewis F. Powell’s controlling opinion in Bakke in 1978 where the Court permitted the use of race as “one plus factor.”

Chief Justice William Rehnquist, joined by Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy, wrote the principal dissenting opinion. Rehnquist wrote that he did not believe that the law school’s admission process was “narrowly tailored to the interest it asserts,” namely achieving “a critical mass” of minorities. “Stripped of its ‘critical mass’ veil,” he stated, “the law school’s program is revealed as a naked effort to achieve racial balancing.” He concluded by writing that, in the opinion of the dissenting justices, the law school had set up its admissions process not to achieve “a critical mass” but to admit minority students “in proportion to their statistical representation in the applicant pool.” This, he emphasized, “is precisely the type of racial balancing that the Court itself calls ‘patently unconstitutional.’ ”