Ratified on July 9, 1868, just a few years after the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in the United States, the Fourteenth Amendment was a step toward ensuring that everyone in America could enjoy the same protections and rights under the law.
However, continued efforts to right the nation's past wrongs pose complex legal questions. For example, how do programs that aim to help women and racial minorities stand up against the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection guarantee?
United States Library of Congress, The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation
Of critical importance in equal protection litigation is the degree to which the government is permitted to take race or another suspect classification into account when formulating and implementing a remedy to overcome the effects of past discrimination. Often the issue is framed in terms of reverse discrimination, in that the governmental action deliberately favors members of one class and consequently may adversely affect nonmembers of that class.1 Although the Court had previously accepted the use of suspect criteria such as race to formulate remedies for specific instances of past discrimination2 and had allowed preferences for members of certain non-suspect classes that had been the object of societal discrimination,3 it was not until the late 1970s that the Court gave plenary review to programs that expressly used race as the primary consideration for awarding a public benefit.4
In United Jewish Organizations v. Carey,5 New York State had drawn a plan that consciously used racial criteria to create districts with nonwhite populations in order to comply with the Voting Rights Act and to obtain the United States Attorney General's approval for a redistricting law. These districts were drawn large enough to permit the election of nonwhite candidates in spite of the lower voter turnout of nonwhite citizens. In the process, a Hasidic Jewish community previously located entirely within one senate and one assembly district were divided between two senate and two assembly districts, and members of that community sued, alleging that the value of their votes had been diluted solely for the purpose of achieving a racial quota. The Supreme Court approved the districting, although the fragmented majority of seven concurred in no majority opinion.6
Justice White, delivering the judgment of the Court, based the result on alternative grounds. First, because the redistricting took place pursuant to the administration of the Voting Rights Act, Justice White argued that compliance with the Act necessarily required states to be race-conscious in the drawing of lines so as not to dilute minority voting strength. Justice White noted that this requirement was not dependent upon a showing of past discrimination and that the states retained discretion to determine just what strength minority voters needed in electoral districts in order to assure their proportional representation. Moreover, the creation of a certain number of districts in which minorities were in the majority was reasonable under the circumstances.7
Second, Justice White wrote that irrespective of what the Voting Rights Act may have required, what the state had done did not violate either the Fourteenth or the Fifteenth Amendment. This was so because the plan, even though it used race in a purposeful manner, represented no racial slur or stigma with respect to white citizens or any other race; the plan did not operate to minimize or unfairly cancel out white voting strength, because as a class white citizens would be represented in the legislature in accordance with their proportion of the population in the jurisdiction.8
It was anticipated that Regents of the University of California v. Bakke9 would shed further light on the constitutionality of affirmative action. Instead, the Court again fragmented. In Bakke, the Davis campus medical school admitted 100 students each year. Of these slots, the school set aside 16 of those seats for disadvantaged minority students, who were qualified but not necessarily as qualified as those winning admission to the other 84 places. Twice denied admission, Bakke sued, arguing that had the 16 positions not been set aside he could have been admitted. The state court ordered him admitted and ordered the school not to consider race in admissions. By two 5-to-4 votes, the Supreme Court affirmed the order admitting Bakke but set aside the order forbidding the consideration of race in admissions.10
Four Justices, in an opinion by Justice Brennan, argued that racial classifications designed to further remedial purposes were not foreclosed by the Constitution under appropriate circumstances. Even ostensibly benign racial classifications, however, could be misused and produce stigmatizing effects; therefore, they must be searchingly scrutinized by courts to ferret out these instances. But benign racial preferences, unlike invidious discriminations, need not be subjected to strict scrutiny; instead, intermediate scrutiny would do. As applied, then, this review would enable the Court to strike down a remedial racial classification that stigmatized a group, that singled out those least well represented in the political process to bear the brunt of the program, or that was not justified by an important and articulated purpose.11
Justice Powell, however, argued that all racial classifications are suspect and require strict scrutiny. Because none of the justifications asserted by the college met this high standard of review, he would have invalidated the program. But he did perceive justifications for a less rigid consideration of race as one factor among many in an admissions program; diversity of student body was an important and protected interest of an academy and would justify an admissions set of standards that made affirmative use of race. Ameliorating the effects of past discrimination would justify the remedial use of race, the Justice thought, when the entity itself had been found by appropriate authority to have discriminated, but the college could not inflict harm upon other groups in order to remedy past societal discrimination.12 Justice Powell thus agreed that Bakke should be admitted, but he joined the four justices who sought to allow the college to consider race to some degree in its admissions.13
The Court then began a circuitous route toward disfavoring affirmative action, at least when it occurs outside the education context. At first, the Court seemed inclined to extend the result in Bakke. In Fullilove v. Klutznick,14 the Court, still lacking a majority opinion, upheld a federal statute requiring that at least ten percent of public works funds be set aside for minority business enterprises. A series of opinions by six Justices all recognized that alleviation and remediation of past societal discrimination was a legitimate goal and that race was a permissible classification to use in remedying the present effects of past discrimination.
Chief Justice Burger issued the judgment, which emphasized Congress's preeminent role under the Commerce Clause and the Fourteenth Amendment to determine the existence of past discrimination and its continuing effects and to implement remedies that were race-conscious in order to cure those effects. The principal concurring opinion by Justice Marshall applied the Brennan analysis in Bakke, using middle-tier scrutiny to hold that the race-conscious set-aside was substantially related to the achievement of the important and congressionally articulated goal of remedying the present effects of past discrimination.15
Taken together, the opinions established that, although Congress had the power to make the findings that will establish the necessity to use racial classifications in an affirmative way, these findings need not be extensive nor express and may be collected in many ways.16 Moreover, although the opinions emphasized the limited duration and magnitude of the set-aside program, they appeared to attach no constitutional significance to these limitations, thus leaving open the way for programs of a scope sufficient to remedy all the identified effects of past discrimination.17
But the most important part of these opinions rested in the clear sustaining of race classifications as permissible in remedies and in the approving of some forms of racial quotas.
The Court rejected arguments that minority beneficiaries of such programs are stigmatized, that burdens are placed on innocent third parties, and that the program is overinclusive, so as to benefit some minority members who had suffered no discrimination.18
Despite these developments, the Court remained divided in its response to constitutional challenges to affirmative action plans.19 As a general matter, the authority to apply racial classifications was found to be at its greatest when Congress was acting pursuant to section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment or other of its remedial powers, or when a court is acting to remedy proven discrimination. But a countervailing consideration was the impact of such discrimination on disadvantaged non-minorities. Two cases illustrate the latter point. In Wygant v. Jackson Board of Education,20 the Court invalidated a provision of a collective bargaining agreement giving minority teachers preferential protection from layoffs. In United States v. Paradise,21 the Court upheld as a remedy for past discrimination a court-ordered racial quota in promotions. Justice White, concurring in Wygant, emphasized the harsh, direct effect of layoffs on affected non-minority employees.22 By contrast, a plurality of Justices in Paradise viewed the remedy in that case as affecting non-minorities less harshly than did the layoffs in Wygant, because the promotion quota would merely delay promotions of those affected, rather than cause the loss of their jobs.23
A clear distinction was then drawn between federal and state power to apply racial classifications. In City of Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co.,24 the Court invalidated a minority set-aside requirement that holders of construction contracts with the city subcontract at least 30% of the dollar amount to minority business enterprises. Applying strict scrutiny, the Court found Richmond's program to be deficient because it was not tied to evidence of past discrimination in the city's construction industry. By contrast, the Court in Metro Broadcasting, Inc. v. FCC25 applied a more lenient standard of review in upholding two racial preference policies used by the FCC in the award of radio and television broadcast licenses. The FCC policies, the Court explained, are benign, race-conscious measures that are substantially related to the achievement of an important governmental objective of broadcast diversity.26
In Croson, the Court ruled that the city had failed to establish a compelling interest in the racial quota system because it failed to identify past discrimination in its construction industry. The mere recitation of a benign or remedial purpose will not suffice, the Court concluded, nor will reliance on the disparity between the number of contracts awarded to minority firms and the minority population of the city. "[W]here special qualifications are necessary, the relevant statistical pool for purposes of demonstrating exclusion must be the number of minorities qualified to undertake the particular task."27 The Court also said that because the ordinance defined minority group members to include citizens of the United States who are "Blacks, Spanish-speaking, Orientals, Indians, Eskimos, or Aleuts, this expansive definition impugn[ed] the city's claim of remedial motivation, there having been no evidence of any past discrimination against non-black racial minorities in the Richmond construction industry."28 It followed that Richmond's set-aside program also was not narrowly tailored to remedy the effects of past discrimination in the city: an individualized waiver procedure made the quota approach unnecessary, and a minority entrepreneur from anywhere in the country could obtain an absolute racial preference.29
At issue in Metro Broadcasting were two minority preference policies of the FCC, one recognizing an enhancement for minority ownership and participation in management when the FCC considers competing license applications, and the other authorizing a distress sale transfer of a broadcast license to a minority enterprise. These racial preferences – unlike the set-asides at issue in Fullilove—originated as administrative policies rather than statutory mandates. Because Congress later endorsed these policies, however, the Court was able to conclude that they bore the imprimatur of longstanding congressional support and direction.30
Metro Broadcasting was noteworthy for several other reasons as well. The Court rejected the dissent's argument – seemingly accepted by a Croson majority—that Congress's more extensive authority to adopt racial classifications must trace to section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, and instead ruled that Congress also may rely on race-conscious measures in the exercise of its commerce and spending powers.31 This meant that the governmental interest furthered by a race-conscious policy need not be remedial, but could be a less focused interest such as broadcast diversity. Secondly, as noted above, the Court eschewed strict scrutiny analysis: the governmental interest need only be important rather than compelling, and the means adopted need only be substantially related rather than narrowly tailored to the interest.
The distinction between federal and state power to apply racial classifications, however, proved ephemeral. The Court ruled in Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Pena32 that racial classifications imposed by federal law must be analyzed by the same strict scrutiny standard that is applied to evaluate state and local classifications based on race. The Court overruled Metro Broadcasting and, to the extent that it applied a review standard less stringent than strict scrutiny, Fullilove v. Klutznick. Strict scrutiny is to be applied regardless of the race of those burdened or benefitted by the particular classification; there is no intermediate standard applicable to benign racial classifications. The underlying principle, the Court explained, is that the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments protect persons, not groups. It follows, therefore, that classifications based on the group characteristic of race should be subjected to detailed judicial inquiry to ensure that the personal right to equal protection has not been infringed.33
By applying strict scrutiny, the Court was in essence affirming Justice Powell's individual opinion in Bakke, which posited a strict scrutiny analysis of affirmative action. There remained the question, however, whether Justice Powell's suggestion that creating a diverse student body in an educational setting was a compelling governmental interest that would survive strict scrutiny analysis. It engendered some surprise, then, that the Court essentially reaffirmed Justice Powell's line of reasoning in the cases of Grutter v. Bollinger,34 and Gratz v. Bollinger.35
In Grutter, the Court considered the admissions policy of the University of Michigan Law School, which requires admissions officials to evaluate each applicant based on all the information available in their file (e.g., grade point average, Law School Admissions Test score, personal statement, recommendations) and on soft variables (e.g., the strength of recommendations, quality of the undergraduate institution, the difficulty of undergraduate courses). The policy also considered racial and ethnic diversity with special reference to the inclusion of students from groups that have been historically discriminated against, like African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans. However, the policy did not limit the seeking of diversity to ethnic and racial classifications, it did seek a critical mass of minorities so that those students would not feel isolated.36
The Grutter Court found that student diversity provided significant benefits, not just to the students who might have otherwise not been admitted, but also to the student body as a whole. These benefits include cross-racial understanding, the breakdown of racial stereotypes, the improvement of classroom discussion, and the preparation of students to enter a diverse workforce. Further, the Court emphasized the role of education in developing national leaders. Thus, the Court found that such efforts were important to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry.37As the university did not rely on quotas, but rather relied on flexible assessments of a student's record, the Court found that the university's policy was narrowly tailored to achieve the substantial governmental interest of achieving a diverse student body.38
The law school's admission policy in Grutter, however, can be contrasted with the university's undergraduate admission policy. In Gratz, the Court evaluated the undergraduate program's selection index, which assigned applicants up to 150 points based on a variety of factors similar to those considered by the law school. Applicants with scores over 100 were generally admitted, while those with scores of less than 100 fell into categories that could result in either admittance, postponement, or rejection. Of particular interest to the Court was that an applicant would be entitled to 20 points based solely upon his or her membership in an underrepresented racial or ethnic minority group. The policy also included the flagging of certain applications for special review, and underrepresented minorities were among those whose applications were flagged.39
The Court in Gratz struck down this admissions policy, relying again on Justice Powell's decision in Bakke. Although Justice Powell had thought it permissible that race or ethnic background be deemed a 'plus' in a particular applicant's file,40 the system he envisioned involved individualized consideration of all elements of an application to ascertain how the applicant would contribute to the diversity of the student body. According to the majority opinion in Gratz, the undergraduate policy did not provide for such individualized consideration. Instead, by automatically distributing 20 points to every applicant from an underrepresented minority group, the policy effectively admitted every qualified minority applicant. Although it acknowledged that the volume of applications could make individualized assessments an administrative challenge, the Court found that the policy was not narrowly tailored to achieve respondents' asserted compelling interest in diversity.41
The Court subsequently revisited the question of affirmative action in undergraduate education in its 2016 decision in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, upholding the University of Texas at Austin's (UT's) use of scores based, in part, on race in filling approximately 25% of the slots in its incoming class that were not required by statute to be awarded to Texas high school students who finished in the top 10% of their graduating class (Top Ten Percent Plan or TTPP).42 The Court itself suggested that the sui generis nature of the UT program,43 coupled with the fact that this case has been litigated on a somewhat artificial basis because the record lacked information about the impact of Texas's TTPP,44 may limit the decision's value for prospective guidance.45 Nonetheless, certain language in the Court's decision, along with its application of the three controlling factors set forth in the Court's 2013 decision in Fisher,46 seem likely to have some influence, as they represent the Court's most recent jurisprudence on whether and when institutions of higher education may take race into consideration in their admission decisions. Specifically, the 2016 Fisher decision began and ended with broad language recognizing constraints on the implementation of affirmative action programs in undergraduate education, including language that highlights the university's continuing obligation to satisfy the burden of strict scrutiny in light of changing circumstances47 and emphasized that [t]he Court's affirmance of the University's admissions policy today does not necessarily mean the University may rely on that same policy without refinement.48 Nonetheless, while citing these constraints, the 2016 Fisher decision held that the challenged UT program did not run afoul of the Fourteenth Amendment. In particular, the Court concluded that the state's compelling interest in the case was not in enrolling a certain number of minority students, but in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from student body diversity, noting that the state cannot be faulted for not specifying a particular level of minority enrollment.49 The Court further concurred with UT's view that the alleged critical mass of minority students achieved under the 10% plan was not dispositive, as the university had found that it was insufficient,50 and that UT had found other means of promoting student-body diversity were unworkable.51 In so concluding, the Court held that the university had met its burden in surviving strict scrutiny by providing sworn affidavits from UT officials and internal assessments based on months of studies, retreats, interviews, and reviews of data that amounted, in the view of the Court, to a reasoned, principled explanation of the university's interests and its efforts to achieve those interests in a manner that was no broader than necessary.52 The Court refused to question the motives of university administrators and did not further scrutinize the underlying evidence relied on by the respondents, which may indicate that there are some limits to the degree in which the Court will evaluate a race-conscious admissions policy once the university has provided sufficient support for its approach.53
While institutions of higher education were striving to increase racial diversity in their student populations, state and local governments were engaged in a similar effort with respect to elementary and secondary schools. Whether this goal could be constitutionally achieved after Grutter and Gratz, however, remained unclear, especially as the type of individualized admission considerations found in higher education are less likely to have useful analogies in the context of public school assignments. Thus, for instance, in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1,54 the Court rejected plans in both Seattle, Washington, and Jefferson County, Kentucky, that, in order reduce what the Court found to be de facto racial imbalance in the schools, used racial tiebreakers to determine school assignments.55 As in Bakke, numerous opinions by a fractured Court led to an uncertain resolution of the issue.
In an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, a majority of the Court in Parents Involved in Community Schools agreed that the plans before the Court did not include the kind of individualized considerations that had been at issue in the university admissions process in Grutter, but rather focused primarily on racial considerations.56 Although a majority of the Court found the plans unconstitutional, only four Justices (including the Chief Justice) concluded that alleviating de facto racial imbalance in elementary and secondary schools could never be a compelling governmental interest. Justice Kennedy, while finding that the school plans at issue were unconstitutional because they were not narrowly tailored,57 suggested in separate concurrence that relieving racial isolation could be a compelling governmental interest. The Justice even envisioned the use of plans based on individual racial classifications as a last resort if other means failed.58 As Justice Kennedy's concurrence appears to represent a narrower basis for the judgment of the Court than does Justice Roberts' opinion, it appears to represent, for the moment, the controlling opinion for the lower courts.59
Cases of statutory classifications that benefit women and disadvantage men in order to overcome the effects of past societal discrimination against women have presented the Court with some difficulty. Although the first two cases were reviewed under apparently traditional rational basis scrutiny, the more recent cases appear to subject these classifications to the same intermediate standard as any other sex classification. Kahn v. Shevin60 upheld a state property tax exemption allowing widows but not widowers a $500 exemption. In justification, the state had presented extensive statistical data showing the substantial economic and employment disabilities of women in relation to men. The provision, the Court found, was reasonably designed to further the state policy of cushioning the financial impact of spousal loss upon the sex for whom that loss imposes a disproportionately heavy burden.61 And, in Schlesinger v. Ballard,62 the Court sustained a provision requiring the mandatory discharge from the Navy of a male officer who has twice failed of promotion to certain levels, which in Ballard's case meant discharge after nine years of service, whereas women officers were entitled to 13 years of service before mandatory discharge for want of promotion. The difference was held to be a rational recognition of the fact that male and female officers were dissimilarly situated and that women had far fewer promotional opportunities than men had.
Although in each of these cases the Court accepted the proffered justification of remedial purpose without searching inquiry, later cases caution that the mere recitation of a benign, compensatory purpose is not an automatic shield which protects against any inquiry into the actual purposes underlying a statutory scheme.63 Rather, after specifically citing the heightened scrutiny that all sex classifications are subjected to, the Court looks to the statute and to its legislative history to ascertain that the scheme does not actually penalize women, that it was actually enacted to compensate for past discrimination, and that it does not reflect merely archaic and overbroad generalizations about women in its moving force. But where a statute is deliberately enacted to compensate for particular economic disabilities suffered by women, it serves an important governmental objective and will be sustained if it is substantially related to achievement of that objective.64
Many of these lines of cases converged in Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan, in which the Court stiffened and applied its standards for evaluating claimed benign distinctions benefitting women and additionally appeared to apply the intermediate standard itself more strictly. The case involved a male nurse who wished to attend a female-only nursing school located in the city in which he lived and worked; if he could not attend this particular school he would have had to commute 147 miles to another nursing school that did accept men, and he would have had difficulty doing so and retaining his job. The state defended on the basis that the female-only policy was justified as providing educational affirmative action for females. Recitation of a benign purpose, the Court said, was not alone sufficient. [A] State can evoke a compensatory purpose to justify an otherwise discriminatory classification only if members of the gender benefitted by the classification actually suffer a disadvantage related to the classification.65 But women did not lack opportunities to obtain training in nursing; instead they dominated the field. In the Court's view, the state policy did not compensate for discriminatory barriers facing women, but it perpetuated the stereotype of nursing as a woman's job. [A]lthough the State recited a 'benign, compensatory purpose,' it failed to establish that the alleged objective is the actual purpose underlying the discriminatory classification.66 Even if the classification was premised on the proffered basis, the Court concluded, it did not substantially and directly relate to the objective, because the school permitted men to audit the nursing classes and women could still be adversely affected by the presence of men.67