Regents of the University of California v. Bakke

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Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978) was a landmark decision of the Supreme Court of the United States on affirmative action. It bars quota systems in college admissions but affirms the constitutionality of programs giving advantage to underrepresented minorities.

The Case

Allan Bakke, a white male, applied to the University of California - Davis Medical School and was denied admission despite being well qualified. The UC Davis Medical School had opened 10 years earlier in 1968 with a entering class of 50 students. The first class contained 3 people of Asian descent and the other 47 spots consisted of Caucasian students. Over the next 2 years, the Medical School devised a special admissions program to increase diversity at the school by reserving 8 spots for minority applicants. In 1971 the class size was increased to 100 and the number of spots reserved for minorities was increased to 16.

To apply to the school an applicant had to have a minimum GPA of over 2.5. The applicant's Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) score, GPA, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities and other biographical data as well as an interview were also rated by 5 committee members to produce a benchmark score out of 500. Minority applicants on the other hand went through a different admissions process. Applicants who checked a box stating they wished to be considered as "economically and/or educationally disadvantaged" applicants were directed to the separate admissions committee. Minority applicants did not have to meet the 2.5 GPA requirements of regular applicants. Minority applicants also competed for the 16 seats among each other and were insulated from competition from the regular applicant pool. Several white applicants applied to the special program but none received an offer of admission through the special program.

Bakke applied to the school in 1973 and 1974 and was denied both times. In 1973 he had a benchmark score of 468 out of 500, but no regular applicants were admitted after him with a score below 470. Bakke however, was not considered for 4 special admissions slots which had not yet been filled. Bakke wrote a letter of complaint to Dr. George H. Lowrey, the Associate Dean and Chairman of the Admissions Committee, complaining the special admissions program was a racial and ethnic quota. In 1974 Bakke again applied to the school and received a score of 549 out of 600 (an extra committee member was on the committee that year making the score out of 600) and his lowest score of 86 was from Dr. Lowrey who found Bakke was "rather limited in his approach" to the problems of the medical profession and stated Bakke's "very definite opinions which were based more on his personal viewpoints than upon a study of the total problem" were disturbing. In both years that Bakke applied, applicants were admitted under the special admissions program with GPAs, MCAT scores, and benchmark scores significantly lower than Bakke's.

Bakke then filed suit in the Superior Court of California seeking an injunction to allow him into the medical school claiming that the school had discriminated against him on the basis of his race and thus violated his rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the California Constitution, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Decision

Handed down on 28 June, 1978, the decision of the Court was announced by Justice Lewis Powell. The court ruled that race could be one, but only one, of numerous factors used by discriminatory boards, like those of college admissions. Powell found that quotas insulated minority applicants from competition with the regular applicants and were thus unconstitutional because they discriminated against regular applicants. Powell however stated that universities could use race as a plus factor. He cited the Harvard College Admissions Program which had been filed as an amicus curiae as an example of a constitutionally valid affirmative action program which took into account of all of an applicants qualities including race in a "holistic review."

The decision was split with 4 justices firmly against all use of race in admissions processes, 4 justices for the use of race in university admissions, and Justice Powell who was against the UC Davis Medical School quota system of admission, but found that universities were allowed to use race as a factor in admission. The nature of this split opinion created controversy over whether Powell's opinion was binding. However, in 2003 in Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger the Supreme Court affirmed Powell's opinion.

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