WASHINGTON - The US Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that states can disregard race as a factor in university admissions, in a fresh blow to a legacy of the 1960s civil rights movement.
The 6-2 ruling upheld the constitutionality of a measure passed by referendum in Michigan that disallowed so-called affirmative action in college admissions.
Effectively favouring voter initiatives over the courts, the decision was expected to have repercussions far beyond Michigan - governors of Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma and West Virginia had supported Michigan's appeal.
The ruling was the latest to chip away at a practice used to promote racial and ethnic diversity of university student bodies while countering the effects of racial discrimination.
It also continued a conservative trend in court rulings on civil rights issues.
Last year, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requiring certain states to get federal approval before changing their voting laws.
On Tuesday, liberal justice Stephen Breyer voted with the conservative majority, and the fourth member of the court's liberal wing, Justice Elena Kagan, had recused herself.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy argued that the case was "not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved. It is about who may resolve it." "There is no authority in the constitution of the United States or in this court's precedents for the judiciary to set aside Michigan laws that commit this policy determination to the voters," he said.
In 2006, Michigan voters approved a measure prohibiting the state's public universities and schools from "discriminating against or granting preferential treatment for any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, colour, ethnicity, or national origin." Known as Proposition 2, the measure was struck down by an appeals court, and the case reached the Supreme Court.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who credits affirmative action for her own rise to Princeton University despite her Puerto Rican family's limited circumstances, wrote an impassioned dissent.
Sotomayor argued that the constitution 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." By permitting a majority of voters to do just that in Michigan, she contended, "the court ends the debate over race-sensitive admissions policies in Michigan in a manner that contravenes constitutional protections long recognised in our precedents." The Michigan case comes on the heels of a high court decision last year concerning affirmative action at the University of Texas.
In that case, justices elected not to rule on the constitutionality of using race and ethnicity in admissions, instructing a lower court to take another look at the sensitive matter.
Affirmative action was first introduced in the early 1960s to combat racial discrimination in government hiring, but has since been the subject of numerous court challenges.
In 2003, the court ruled that universities could consider factors such as race and sex in admissions but ruled out as unconstitutional a strict point system such as that used by the University of Michigan Law School.
Sotomayor warned of the broader implications of Tuesday's ruling in her dissenting opinion.
"Today's decision eviscerates an important strand of our equal protection jurisprudence," she said.
"For members of historically marginalised groups, which rely on the federal courts to protect their constitutional rights, the decision can hardly bolster hope for a vision of democracy that preserves for all the right to participate meaningfully and equally in self-government," she said.
Civil rights groups also expressed disappointment.
"This case is ultimately about whether students of colour in Michigan are allowed to compete on the same playing field as all other students. Today, the Supreme Court said they are not," said Leticia Smith-Evans of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, said the ruling "places roadblocks on the critical efforts to ensure that our public universities are places where a fair and equal exchange of ideas from a variety of perspectives and viewpoints is encouraged, not compromised." Justice Kennedy acknowledged that debate on issues such as racial preferences "all too often may shade into rancour." "But that does not justify removing certain court-determined issues from the voters' reach," he said. "Democracy does not presume that some subjects are either too divisive or too profound for public debate."