Grutter v. Bollinger

Following is the case brief for Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003).

Case Summary of Grutter v. Bollinger:

  • The University of Michigan Law School denied Barbara Grutter’s application to the School.  Grutter, a white Michigan resident, then sued the Law School.
  • Grutter claimed that the Law School’s use of affirmative action in its admissions policy violated her Equal Protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.
  • The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, held that the Law School’s affirmative action policy was constitutional.
  • The Court reasoned that the Law School’s goal of student diversity was a compelling interest.  Also, the Court found that the Law School’s individual review of each applicant (where race was only one of many factors) was narrowly tailored to achieve that compelling interest.

Grutter v. Bollinger Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Each year, the University of Michigan Law School receives approximately 3500 applications for 350 available seats.  The Law School strived to admit a diverse student body in selecting those 350 students.  To achieve that goal, the Law School admissions officials considered many factors beyond GPA and LSAT score.  Specifically, the Law School considered an applicant’s personal statement, essay, letters of recommendation, and so-called “soft variables,” such as the enthusiasm of recommenders, and the quality of an applicant’s undergraduate school.

In addition, the Law School’s admissions policy placed an emphasis on the Law School’s commitment to ethnic and racial diversity.  Thus, the Law School sought to enroll a “critical mass” of underrepresented minority students to ensure that those students could provide unique perspectives to the Law School’s character.  The notion of “critical mass” was not a quota calling for a fixed percentage of minority students.  Rather, the Law School’s goal was to enroll a class that was qualified academically, while also being diverse.

Barbara Grutter applied for admission to the Law School in 1996.  She is a white Michigan resident with a 3.8 GPA and 161 LSAT score.  The Law School denied her admission.  She sued the Law School in Federal District Court, alleging that the Law School discriminated against her based on race in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Procedural History:

Following a trial, the District Court upheld Grutter’s claims.  The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed.  Grutter appealed to the United States Supreme Court.  The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Is a public university’s goal of “student diversity” sufficiently compelling to justify a narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions?  Yes.


The United States Supreme Court reversed and remanded the Sixth Circuit’s decision.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Student diversity is an interest that is sufficiently compelling to justify the narrowly tailored use of race when a public university makes admissions decisions.


  • The Law School’s admissions policy is constitutional because the manner in which it achieves a diverse student body passes strict scrutiny.

All classifications based on race must be given strict scrutiny.  That is, a racial classification is only constitutional if it is narrowly tailored to further a compelling government interest.  Here, the Law School’s goal of diversity passes strict scrutiny.  The Law School’s admissions policy, therefore, is constitutional.

First, the Court found that the Law School has a compelling interest in enrolling a diverse student body.  The Court pointed to the fact that attaining a diverse student body leads to cross-racial understanding and prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce.

Second, the Court found that the Law School’s use of race was narrowly tailored.  The Court noted that the Law School’s policy does not amount to a racial quota.  Rather, the Law School engages in an individualized, holistic review of each applicant.  Race is one of many factors the Law School considers.  In fact, the Law School gives weight to diversity factors other than race.

Accordingly, the Law School’s race-conscious admissions policy did not violate Grutter’s rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring (Ginsberg):

There is no question that racial bias, in education as elsewhere, still exists in this country.  Race-conscious admissions policies are therefore important to remedy that existing bias.  There is hope, however, that someday the country will not need race-conscious admissions policies.

Concurring in part, Dissenting in part (Scalia):

The Constitution proscribes discrimination based on race, and public universities are no exception.  The notion of “critical mass” is merely a sham to allow racial preferences.  The Court’s ruling adds further confusion to any review of a school’s admissions policies in the future.

Concurring in part, Dissenting in part (Thomas):

African Americans can achieve in any part of American life without the help of race-based admissions policies.  In this case, the Law School’s policy amounts to racial discrimination, which the Fourteenth Amendment forbids.

Dissenting (Rehnquist):

The way in which the Law School tries to achieve a diverse student body is not narrowly tailored.  Rather, the “critical mass” rationale is merely a bald-faced effort to attain racial balance.  The statistics in the case demonstrate that fact.


Grutter v. Bollinger is an important milestone in the debate on affirmative action.  The Court found the use of affirmative action in school admissions can be constitutional provided that (i) race is only one of many factors considered; (ii) the purpose is a diverse student body; and (iii) an applicant’s race does not replace an individualized, holistic review of each applicant.

Student Resources: