The Michigan Affirmative Action Cases

Barbara A. Perry

In its controversial Bakke decision of 1978, the Supreme Court upheld racial and ethnic diversity in university admissions—but it was not to be the last word on the matter. When Jennifer Gratz and Barbara Grutter challenged the University of Michigan's admission policies because they were passed over in favor of ostensibly less-qualified minority applicants, the Court was once again compelled to address affirmative action.

Barbara Perry takes readers behind the scenes to tell the riveting story of how the two rejected applicants allied with conservative interest groups in an attempt to overturn affirmative action programs in higher education-and how in a 5-4 decision Justice Sandra Day O'Connor provided the decisive vote reaffirming Bakke. While the plaintiffs argued that their rights to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act had been violated, the Court in 2003 disagreed and upheld the constitutionality of affirmative action, citing the goal of diversity as a legitimate state interest but also making it clear that there were limits to that interest and the policies to implement it.

“An interesting and informative account of the University of Michigan affirmative action cases. Perry’s work offers an impartial appraisal of the arguments surrounding affirmative action.

—Perspectives on Politics

“Perry artfully describes complex legal arguments, even providing an outline of the questions the Supreme Court had to consider. Perry’s description of oral arguments is especially fine, as she deftly weaves together the finer points of equal-protection jurisprudence and fascinating biographical details, about the justices, all in a dramatic narrative form.

—Michigan Historical Review
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Drawing on interviews with key figures in the litigation, Perry follows the twists and turns of the district and appellate cases, then reveals the inside story of how Justice O'Connor joined her liberal colleagues to uphold the use of race in university admissions and thereby establish an important new precedent. Perry provides a play-by-play account of the dramatic oral arguments before the Court, explains how the Court's decisions emerged, and reveals how Justice O'Connor's personal, professional, and judicial background brought her to that pivotal moment in legal history.

As Perry shows, the Supreme Court's decisions frustrated both conservatives and civil rights advocates, who continue to battle each other when anti-affirmative action initiatives appear on state ballots. Her compelling study helps us understand why affirmative action remains one of our most hotly contested issues.

About the Author

Barbara A. Perry is Senior Fellow at the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville and Carter Glass Professor of Government at Sweet Briar College. Her other books include The Priestly Tribe: The Supreme Court’s Image in the American Mind; "The Supremes": Essays on the Current Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States; and most recently Jacqueline Kennedy: First Lady of the New Frontier.

Additional Titles in the Landmark Law Cases and American Society Series