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University of California Regents v. Bakke (1978)

In the 1950's, the judicial system faced many challenges to the segregated school systems. In 1954, the Supreme Court delivered its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, declaring that institutionalized segregation was unconstitutional and overturning the "separate but equal" doctrine established decades earlier. This case dramatically changed the face of the education system in the United States. Beginning with Brown, the Supreme Court and the government, led a campaign to reverse the discrimination and segregation prevalent through public education institutions. Further strides towards equal rights culminated in 1964 with the enactment of the Civil Rights Act, which created a variety of programs designed to promote and encourage minorities into more influential jobs and opportunities across the nation. With this campaign, affirmative action was included. At its creation, most Americans hailed affirmative action as a positive step towards equality and a virtuous effort to amend the mistakes of the past.

However, by the mid-seventies, that attitude had changed, as seen in the University of California Regents v. Bakke. Increasingly, white Americans felt these programs were now giving unfair opportunities and advantages to minorities. Allen Bakke, a pre-med student who was twice declined admission to the University of California at Davis medical school, sued the University of California for giving "affirmative action" preference to less-qualified black applicants. His evidence was that students in the special admissions program had far inferior scores than he, but were still admitted. The medical school had two separate admissions programs -- a regular admissions program and the special admissions program. Under the regular admissions procedure, candidates whose overall undergraduate grade point averages fell below 2.5 on a scale of 4.0 were rejected. Those who weren't were given a score based on interviewers' summaries, the applicant's overall grade point average, grade point average from science courses, Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) score, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, and other biographical data.

A separate committee operated the special admissions program, which considered "economically and/or educationally disadvantaged" applicants and members of a "minority group," such as blacks, Chicanos, Asians, American Indians. If an applicant of a minority group was found to be "disadvantaged," he would be rated in a manner similar to the one employed by the general admissions committee. Special candidates, however, did not have to meet the 2.5 grade point cutoff and were not ranked against candidates in the general admissions process. During the four-year period that this special admissions program existed, no disadvantaged whites were admitted under the special program, though many applied.

Bakke had scored a 468 total score out of 500 score in 1973, but he was rejected. At that time, four special admission slots were still unfilled. In 1974, Bakke applied early, and though he had a total score of 549 out of 600, he was again rejected; his name was not placed on the waiting list either year. In both years special applicants were admitted with significantly lower scores than Bakke's. After his second rejection, he filed for a mandatory injunction and relief to compel his admission to Davis, alleging that the special admissions program operated to exclude him on the basis of his race in violation of the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In 1978, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down its anticipated Bakke decision. There were several cases dealing with the issue of race and education which preceded this case; however, Bakke was the first in which the federal judicial system was asked to resolve the issue of affirmative action. The decision handed out by the high court was ambiguous and, although temporarily solved that particular case, did very little to resolve the problem or set a precedence for future cases dealing with the same difficult issue. In the 5-4 ruling, the Court agreed that the medical school's strict upholding of a 16% minority quota infringed upon Bakke's right to equal protection and that he should be admitted to the UC Davis medical school. The Court held that race could be a factor in admissions and hiring decisions in the effort to make institutions more diverse; therefore, Affirmative Action can continue as long as rigid quotas did not constitute "reverse discrimination." That decision has further fueled the intense public debate over affirmative action programs in all aspects of society today and brought the issue into the forefront of current debate.

In 1996, the debate over affirmative action was as intense as ever, as seen by the importance both presidential candidates gave to the issue. The issue was challenged by politicians and in courtrooms around the country. Nowhere was the issue as important as in California, where in the last two years, the government has done considerable work to repeal affirmative action and any other race based programs. The UC Regents radically changed their admission policies in 1997 so that their universities would not take race into consideration for admissions. Proposition 209 eliminated all preferential programs throughout the state. The federal judicial system has also taken steps to reduce some of its affirmative action policies. This was a direct result of the conservative appointments made to the federal court system during the Reagan and Bush administrations.

The Full Supreme Court Opinion

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