The Rehnquist Court (1986–2005)


How did the Rehnquist Court deal with affirmative action?

A majority of the Rehnquist Court believed that any racial classifications, even those designed to help historically disadvantaged groups, must satisfy the highest form of judicial review—known as strict scrutiny. However, in a narrow 5–4 decision, the Court approved of the University of Michigan Law School’s affirmative action policy in its 2003 decision Grutter v. Bollinger. Writing for the Court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor reasoned that the law school’s policy, which sought to achieve a “critical mass” of minority students but not a specific numerical quota, furthered the compelling state interest of achieving a diverse student body. The majority reasoned that the law school’s policy allowed for an individualized review of each applicant. At the end of her opinion, O’Connor wrote that there would no longer be a need for such policies 25 years from now: “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”

However, in the companion case Gratz v. Bollinger, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated an affirmative action policy by the University of Michigan’s undergraduate institution. The undergrad policy gave twenty points to many minority candidates. A majority of the justices believed that this policy was closer to the quota policy struck down by the Court in its 1978 Bakke decision. The justices said that the policy of adding points automatically failed to give sufficient individualized consideration of prospective students.


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