In today’s major Supreme Court opinion, Justice Kennedy for a plurality of three Justices waxes poetic about the initiative process (which in Michigan led to an amendment banning the use of affirmative action in higher education), Justice Scalia, for himself and Justice Thomas [corrected], wants to abandon the Carolene Products approach to determining if the political process is somehow stuck in deciding whether there should be enhanced judicial review for “discrete and insular minorities.” (Along the way he coins the term “dictumizer”.) Justice Breyer, concurring for himself only, seems to agree that in Michigan, the political process was working, not broken. And Justice Sotomayor, dissenting for herself and Justice Ginsburg, sees the political process as broken, with the majority of Michigan voters putting special roadblocks in the political process between minority voters and university boards.
A few snippets from each:
Here Michigan voters acted in concert and statewide to seek consensus and adopt a policy on a difficult subject against a historical background of race in America that has been a source of tragedy and persisting injustice. That history demands that we continue to learn,to listen, and to remain open to new approaches if we are to aspire always to a constitutional order in which all persons are treated with fairness and equal dignity. Were the Court to rule that the question addressed by Michigan voters is too sensitive or complex to be within the grasp of the electorate; or that the policies at issue remain too delicate to be resolved save by university officials or faculties, acting at some remove from immediate public scrutiny and control; or that these matters are so arcane that the electorate’s power must be limited because the people cannot prudently exercise that power even after a full debate, that holding would be an unprecedented restriction on the exercise of a fundamental right held not just by one person but by all in common. It is the right to speak and debate and learn and then, as a matter of political will, to act through a lawful electoral process.
The respondents in this case insist that a difficult question of public policy must be taken from the reach of thevoters, and thus removed from the realm of public discussion, dialogue, and debate in an election campaign. Quite in addition to the serious First Amendment implications of that position with respect to any particular election, it is inconsistent with the underlying premises of a responsible, functioning democracy. One of those premises is that a democracy has the capacity—and the duty—to learnfrom its past mistakes; to discover and confront persistingbiases; and by respectful, rationale deliberation to rise above those flaws and injustices. That process is impeded,not advanced, by court decrees based on the proposition that the public cannot have the requisite repose to discusscertain issues. It is demeaning to the democratic process to presume that the voters are not capable of deciding anissue of this sensitivity on decent and rational grounds. The process of public discourse and political debate should not be foreclosed even if there is a risk that during a public campaign there will be those, on both sides, who seek to use racial division and discord to their own political advantage. An informed public can, and must, rise above this. The idea of democracy is that it can, and must, mature. Freedom embraces the right, indeed the duty, to engage in a rational, civic discourse in order to determine how best to form a consensus to shape the destiny of the Nation and its people. These First Amendment dynamics would be disserved if this Court were to say that the question here at issue is beyond the capacity of the voters to debate and then to determine.
The Constitution allows local, state, and national communities to adopt narrowly tailored race-conscious programs designed to bring about greater inclusion and diversity. But the Constitution foresees the ballot box, not the courts, as the normal instrument for resolving differences and debates about the merits of these programs. Compare Parents Involved, 551 U. S., at 839 (BREYER, J., dissenting) (identifying studies showing the benefits of racially integrated education), with id., at 761–763 (THOMAS, J., concurring) (identifying studies suggesting racially integrated schools may not confer educational benefits). In short, the “Constitution creates a democratic political system through which the people themselves must together find answers” to disagreements of this kind. Id., at 862 (BREYER, J., dissenting).
The dissent does not argue, of course, that such“prejudice” produced §26. Nor does it explain why certain racial minorities in Michigan qualify as “‘insular,’” meaning that “other groups will not form coalitions with them—and, critically, not because of lack of common interests but because of ‘prejudice.’” Strauss, Is Carolene Products Obsolete? 2010 U. Ill. L. Rev. 1251, 1257. Nor does it even make the case that a group’s “discreteness” and “insularity” are political liabilities rather than political strengths8—a serious question that alone demonstrates the prudence of the Carolene Products dictumizers in leaving the “enquir[y]” for another day. As for the question whether “legislation which restricts those political processes which can ordinarily be expected to bring about repeal of undesirable legislation . . . is to be subjected to more exacting judicial scrutiny,” the Carolene Products Court found it “unnecessary to consider [that] now.” 304
U. S., at 152, n. 4. If the dissent thinks that worth considering today, it should explain why the election of a university’s governing board is a “political process which can ordinarily be expected to bring about repeal of undesirablelegislation,” but Michigan voters’ ability to amend their Constitution is not. It seems to me quite the opposite. Amending the Constitution requires the approval of only“a majority of the electors voting on the question.” Mich. Const., Art. XII, §2. By contrast, voting in a favorable board (each of which has eight members) at the three major public universities requires electing by majority vote at least 15 different candidates, several of whom would be running during different election cycles. See BAMN v. Regents of Univ. of Mich., 701 F. 3d 466, 508 (CA6 2012) (Sutton, J., dissenting). So if Michigan voters, instead of amending their Constitution, had pursued the dissent’s preferred path of electing board members promising to “abolish race-sensitive admissions policies,” post, at 3, it would have been harder, not easier, for racial minorities favoring affirmative action to overturn that decision. But the more important point is that we should not design our jurisprudence to conform to dictum in a footnote in a four-Justice opinion
We are fortunate to live in a democratic society. But without checks, democratically approved legislation can oppress minority groups. For that reason, our Constitution places limits on what a majority of the people may do. This case implicates one such limit: the guarantee of equal protection of the laws. Although that guarantee is traditionally understood to prohibit intentional discrimination under existing laws, equal protection does not end there.Another fundamental strand of our equal protection jurisprudence focuses on process, securing to all citizens the right to participate meaningfully and equally in self government. That right is the bedrock of our democracy,for it preserves all other rights.
Yet to know the history of our Nation is to understand its long and lamentable record of stymieing the right ofracial minorities to participate in the political process. At first, the majority acted with an open, invidious purpose. Notwithstanding the command of the Fifteenth Amendment, certain States shut racial minorities out of the political process altogether by withholding the right to vote. This Court intervened to preserve that right. The majority tried again, replacing outright bans on votingwith literacy tests, good character requirements, poll taxes, and gerrymandering. The Court was not fooled; it invalidated those measures, too. The majority persisted.This time, although it allowed the minority access to thepolitical process, the majority changed the ground rules of the process so as to make it more difficult for the minority,and the minority alone, to obtain policies designed tofoster racial integration. Although these political restructurings may not have been discriminatory in purpose, the Court reaffirmed the right of minority members of oursociety to participate meaningfully and equally in the political process.
This case involves this last chapter of discrimination: A majority of the Michigan electorate changed the basic rules of the political process in that State in a manner that uniquely disadvantaged racial minorities.1 Prior to the enactment of the constitutional initiative at issue here, all of the admissions policies of Michigan’s public colleges and universities—including race-sensitive admissions poli- cies2—were in the hands of each institution’s governing political parties and elected by the citizenry in statewide elections. After over a century of being shut out of Michigan’s institutions of higher education, racial minorities in Michigan had succeeded in persuading the elected board representatives to adopt admissions policies that took intoaccount the benefits of racial diversity. And this Court twice blessed such efforts—first in Regents of Univ. of Cal.
v. Bakke, 438 U. S. 265 (1978), and again in Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U. S. 306 (2003), a case that itself concerned a Michigan admissions policy.
In the wake of Grutter, some voters in Michigan set out to eliminate the use of race-sensitive admissions policies.Those voters were of course free to pursue this end in any number of ways. For example, they could have persuaded existing board members to change their minds through individual or grassroots lobbying efforts, or through general public awareness campaigns. Or they could have mobilized efforts to vote uncooperative board members out of office, replacing them with members who would share their desire to abolish race-sensitive admissions policies.When this Court holds that the Constitution permits a particular policy, nothing prevents a majority of a State’s voters from choosing not to adopt that policy. Our system of government encourages—and indeed, depends on—that type of democratic action.
But instead, the majority of Michigan voters changed the rules in the middle of the game, reconfiguring the existing political process in Michigan in a manner that burdened racial minorities. They did so in the 2006 election by amending the Michigan Constitution to enact Art.I, §26, which provides in relevant part that Michigan’s public universities “shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.”
As a result of §26, there are now two very different processes through which a Michigan citizen is permitted to influence the admissions policies of the State’s universities: one for persons interested in race-sensitive admissions policies and one for everyone else. A citizen who is a University of Michigan alumnus, for instance, can advocate for an admissions policy that considers an applicant’s legacy status by meeting individually with members of the Board of Regents to convince them of her views, by joining with other legacy parents to lobby the Board, or by voting for and supporting Board candidates who share her position. The same options are available to a citizen whowants the Board to adopt admissions policies that consider athleticism, geography, area of study, and so on. The one and only policy a Michigan citizen may not seek through this long-established process is a race-sensitive admissions policy that considers race in an individualized manner when it is clear that race-neutral alternatives are not adequate to achieve diversity. For that policy alone, the citizens of Michigan must undertake the daunting task of amending the state’s constitution.