Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor
Yesterday, the Supreme Court upheld a provision of Michigan’s constitution that bans the state or any of its subdivisions from “grant[ing] 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.” The Court was fractured; the six justices who voted to uphold the amendment did so for three independent reasons. Written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the plurality decision—to which Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito signed on—was narrow: It upheld the amendment without disturbing any precedent. Far more interesting was Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent, which makes a strong case for a robust interpretation of the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment and represents perhaps her most compelling work in her tenure on the Court so far.
The case for upholding Michigan’s amendment, which was adopted through the ballot-initiative process, seems compelling at first glance. Even if one agrees that affirmative-action programs are generally constitutional, it surely cannot be the case that the Constitution requires states or the federal government to adopt affirmative-action policies. Had Michigan never adopted affirmative-action policies or had the legislature repealed them, this would presumably not raise a serious constitutional question. So why wouldn’t the citizens of Michigan be able to make the same policy choice? “There is no authority in the Constitution of the United States or in this Court’s precedents,” Kennedy asserts in the plurality opinion, “for the Judiciary to set aside Michigan laws that commit this policy determination to the voters.”
In the most relevant precedent, the Court ruled in 1976 that a Washington constitutional amendment that banned the use of bussing to integrate schools violated the 14th Amendment because it “impose[d] substantial and unique burdens on racial minorities.” Joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice Sotomayor makes a powerful argument that this and related precedents require the Court to strike down the Michigan initiative.
The core of the Court’s “political-process” precedents, Sotomayor observes, is that minorities have access to the state’s democratic procedures. The Constitution “does not guarantee minority groups victory in the political process,” but it does “guarantee them meaningful and equal access to that process. It guarantees that the majority may not win by stacking the political process against minority groups permanently, forcing the minority alone to surmount unique obstacles in pursuit of its goals—here, educational diversity that cannot reasonably be accomplished through race-neutral measures.” Reallocating power in the way Michigan does here therefore raises serious equal-protection concerns.
Sotomayor’s dissent cites a landmark Kennedy opinion: Romer v. Evans, in which the Court struck down a Colorado initiative forbidding the recognition of sexual orientation as a protected category under existing civil-rights laws. Sotomayor observes that Romer “resonates with the principles undergirding the political-process doctrine.” The Court forbade Colorado from preventing a disadvantaged minority access to the state and local political processes, even though states are not constitutionally required to pass civil-rights laws.
Sotomayor’s dissent also offers a useful defense of the political-process doctrine and its strong roots in the 14th Amendment. Starting with the famous fourth footnoteof Carolene Products in 1938, the Court has held that state actions that burden minorities should be subject to heightened judicial scrutiny. When burdens are placed on minorities that affect access to the political process, the possibility of discrimination is particularly acute, allowing exclusionary politics to become self-perpetuating.
It is instructive that in their concurrence Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas mock the influence of Carolene Products: “We should not design our jurisprudence to conform to dictum in a footnote in a four-Justice opinion.” This is grimly ironic, given that Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas recently joined an opinion gutting the Voting Rights Act based on highly implausible bare assertions made by dicta in an opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts less than five years ago. With respect to Carolene Products, conversely, what matters is not merely the footnote in one opinion but the fact that it conforms to the 14th Amendment, and was elaborated on in many subsequent cases. Several of these precedents were the political-process rulings that were supposed to control the outcome in yesterday’s case. As both Scalia from the right and Sotomayor from the left argue, it’s hard to deny that these precedents have been silently overruled, even if the plurality says otherwise.
The consequences of Michigan’s constitutional amendment illustrate the ongoing relevance of the Court’s equal-protection precedents. As the dissenters point out, the percentage of African-American students getting degrees from the University of Michigan was the lowest since 1991 after the amendment passed. In addition, the percentage of racial minorities in freshman classes at Michigan’s flagship university has steadily declined—even as racial minorities comprise an increasing percentage of the state’s population. This does not in itself prove that the Court was wrong to uphold it, but it does show that the elimination of affirmative action is unwise, and at a minimum the Supreme Court should show deference to elected decision-makers who determine that it is necessary.