Regents of Univ. of California v. Bakke

Following is the case brief for Regents of Univ. of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978)

Case Summary of Regents of Univ. of California v. Bakke:

  • A white medical school applicant was twice rejected from the Univ. of California Medical School, though he had better scores than minority candidates who were accepted.
  • Following a lawsuit, the state court found that the school’s affirmative action program violated Title VI, and the Federal and State Constitutions.
  • The California Supreme Court held that the program violated Equal Protection, and ordered that the applicant be admitted to the school.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court held that the school’s affirmative action program violated Equal Protection, but that race could be considered in admissions decisions under a better tailored program.  The Court also affirmed the decision to admit the student to the school.

Regents of Univ. of California v. Bakke Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Respondent Allan Bakke, a 35-year-old white man, applied to the Medical School of the University of California at Davis two years in a row.  He was rejected both times.

The University’s admissions process included a regular admissions program and a special admissions program.  There was room for 100 new students each year, and 16 of those seats were reserved for special admissions students.  The special admissions program was the school’s affirmative action program meant for economically or educationally disadvantaged applicants, and members of a minority group, including Black, Hispanic, Asian, or American Indian candidates.

Bakke’s college GPA and test scores were higher than any of the special admissions students admitted in the two years that Bakke applied and was rejected.

Procedural History:

  • Bakke filed an action in state court, seeking an order that (i) he be admitted to the school and (ii) the special admissions program excluded him on the basis of his race in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, California law, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
  • The state trial court found that (i) the special admissions program was a racial quota; (ii) the school could not account for race in admissions decisions; and (iii) the special admissions program violated the Federal and State Constitutions, and Title VI.  The court, however, did not order Bakke’s admission.
  • The California Supreme Court held that the special admissions program violated the Equal Protection Clause.  It also ordered Bakke’s admission to the school.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issues and Holdings:

  1. Was the school’s special admissions program constitutional?  No.
  2. Can race be considered a factor in the admissions process? Yes.

Judgment:

The decision of the California Supreme Court is affirmed in part, and reversed in part.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Creating a diverse classroom environment is a compelling state interest under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and, therefore, affirmative action programs can take race into account as a factor in the college admissions process.  However, it is improper to set racial quotas as part of an affirmative action admissions program.

Reasoning:

While this case is unusual because there is no single majority opinion, there were five votes (of various combinations of justices) for the following reasoning that was mainly articulated in Justice Powell’s opinion.

First, classifications based on race call for a strict scrutiny analysis.  The goal of achieving a diverse student body is compelling enough to allow race to be considered as a factor in admissions decisions.  However, the special admissions program was not necessary to achieve that goal, because it foreclosed consideration to applicants like Bakke.  Accordingly, the special admission program violated the Equal Protection Clause.

Second, the school should be ordered to accept Bakke as a student, thereby affirming that part of the California Supreme Court’s opinion.  The school could not meet its burden to show that Bakke would not have been admitted absent the special admissions program.  Therefore, Bakke should be admitted to the school.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring in Part, Dissenting in Part (Brennan, White, Marshall, Blackmun):

The government may use race-conscious programs to redress the continuing effects of past discrimination.  Therefore, that part of the California Supreme Court’s opinion prohibiting any affirmative action in admissions is, and should be, reversed.  Further, the decision to direct Bakke’s admission to the school should also be reversed because the special admissions program is constitutional.

Concurring in the Judgment (White):

With regard to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the Court should not simply assume a private cause of action exists.  The cause of action should exist, which allows the Court to hear this case in the first place.

Concurring in the Judgment (Marshall):

Race should be considered when making admissions decisions, and the school’s special admission program does not violate the Constitution because it is meant to remedy the effects of a legacy of discrimination.

Concurring in the Judgment (Blackmun):

It should be remembered that it is a constitution that the Court is interpreting, and it is “a vehicle of life, and its spirit is always the spirit of the age.”  The Constitution should be viewed with breadth and flexibility.

Concurring in the Judgment, Dissenting in Part (Stevens):

It is inappropriate to discuss here whether race can ever be used as a factor in an admissions decision because it is not an issue in the case.  The only thing at issue is the legality of the school’s special admissions program.  The special admissions program violated Title VI by excluding Bakke from the school because of his race.  Thus, the California Supreme Court decision should be affirmed.

Significance:

Regents of Univ. of California v. Bakke was the landmark affirmative action case of its time, and subsequent decisions have clarified the Court’s position always with this case in mind.  In finding for Bakke, the Court was able to minimize opposition to affirmative action programs.  Moreover, the opinion allows for the use of race as a factor in admissions decisions, which is a net gain for the cause of affirmative action.

Student Resources:

Full Text – Supreme Court Opinion

Hear Recordings of Oral Argument

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