The Nation's Pulse

Democracy in America

The meaning of Michigan's Supreme Court win.

By 5.12.14

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Just a few weeks ago, on April 22, the United States Supreme Court upheld Michigan’s State Constitution, which requires that students applying to our outstanding colleges and universities receive equal treatment. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Schuette v. By Any Means Necessary is a victory for the Michigan constitution and the citizens of the Great Lakes State.

In 2006, nearly 60 percent of Michigan voters voiced approval of a basic concept: that it is wrong, fundamentally wrong, to treat people differently based on the color of your skin, race, gender, or ethnicity. In Michigan, we have emblazoned in our constitution this bedrock American premise. With their 6-2 decision, our nation’s highest court issued a stamp of approval for other states across America to follow the Michigan model, mandating equality and prohibiting preferential treatment in higher education. The high court ruling is a victory for states across America.

Justice Kennedy’s opinion, in which he was joined by Justices Roberts and Alito, should be required reading for any high-school or collegiate government class. For the Kennedy opinion is also a civics lesson. It encourages public debate and credences the idea that the issues of the day should be decided, as they have been in Michigan, at the ballot box. As Justice Kennedy wrote, “Democracy does not presume that some subjects are either too divisive or too profound for public debate.” Justice Breyer concurred, noting that “the Constitution foresees the ballot box, not the courts, as the normal instrument for resolving differ­ences and debates about the merits of these programs … [the] Constitution creates a democratic political system through which the people themselves must together find answers to disagreements of this kind.” These justices explicitly endorsed the rights of the citizens of our states to govern themselves and even make difficult choices on controversial and sensitive topics. The court’s majority opinion stands for the proposition that in a democracy, the people rule. 

Much has been made in this case of the issue of race. It does matter that we discuss race. Specifically, I think it is important to discuss how best to achieve diversity and opportunity in America. Several states, including California and Texas, are experimenting with different approaches to accomplish just that. California, for example, weighs socioeconomic status more heavily, and also addresses issues relating to preparing minority students in high school, before they enter college.  Texas admits all in-state high school seniors ranked in the top 10 percent of their classes. I am convinced the best and the brightest can solve the problem of diversity on our college campuses without resort to unconstitutional means.

Perhaps we need simply to look to our athletic fields to better achieve diversity in the campus and classrooms. Colleges and universities spend millions of dollars recruiting athletic talent. In my state, two athletic directors, Dave Brandon of the University of Michigan and Mark Hollis of Michigan State University, expertly and effectively work with coaches and recruiters to find top athletes. $100 million gifts to athletic programs to facilitate athletic recruitment have become commonplace in our colleges and universities. Perhaps the next truly enlightened $100 million gift to a university might be made in the hope of assisting the pursuit of brilliance in the classroom with the same intensity with which universities pursue brilliance on the field. Ask an A.D. to help. 

It has been eight years since Michigan voted to approve what was then known as "Proposal 2." But it was worth the wait to receive a ruling from our nation’s highest court upholding equal treatment, the rights of citizens in a democracy, and the pursuit of diversity through constitutional means.

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About the Author

Bill Schuette is the Attorney General of Michigan.