Prior to its decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003), the Supreme Court’s decision in Regents of University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978) was the first major case concerning the constitutionality of college and university admissions policies. The admissions procedure at the University of California-Davis Medical School was challenged as an unconstitutional violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause, in addition to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The admissions policy reserved 16 seats for disadvantaged minority students, out of an incoming class of 100. Only African American, Chicano, and Asian-Americans could compete for those seats, if they also demonstrated that they were the victims of racial discrimination. The petitioner, Allan Bakke, argued that his grade point average and MCAT scores were superior to those disadvantaged minority students who were accepted.
Justices Brennan, Blackmun, White, and Marshall did not think that the admissions scheme presented any constitutional or statutory problems. Four remaining justices, however, did not reach the constitutional issue. Justices Stevens, Burger, Stewart, and Rehnquist argued that the admissions policy violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits racial discrimination by any institution receiving federal assistance.
Justice Powell provided the decisive vote. The primary constitutional issue concerned which standard of review should be applied when a state policy was intended, not to discriminate against racial minorities, but, for example, to remedy past discrimination by society. The standard for review for evaluating challenges to laws which violate the equal protection clause is strict scrutiny, at least when the law is directed at a “discrete and insular minority.” Although white males, such as Allan Bakke, do not constitute a discrete and insular minority, Justice Powell nevertheless concluded that strict scrutiny should apply. The admissions policy would be deemed unconstitutional unless it was “necessary to achieve a compelling government interest.” Justice Powell contended that the “majority” is composed of myriad groups, “most of which can lay claim to prior discrimination.” There was no principled basis, in the view of Justice Powell, for deciding which groups would have the advantage of heightened scrutiny.
Justice Powell considered the compelling government interests proffered by the University of California-Davis Medical School. The University argued that there was a need to increase the number of doctors and medical students from disadvantaged backgrounds, the need to remedy past discrimination by society, and the need to cultivate doctors who will serve in disadvantaged communities. Justice Powell concluded that these reasons did not constitute compelling government interests. Powell’s analysis established the principle that a college or university could not designate certain seats for disadvantaged racial minorities. Justice Powell did, however, agree that race may be a factor to be taken into consideration in an admissions policy.
The Bakke decision, therefore, laid the groundwork for an equally important case, Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003).