In the 1978 case, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that using racial quotas in college admission decisions violated the Equal Protection Clause. The Equal Protection Clause, included in the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, affirms that "no state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." While this landmark decision eliminated racial quotas, it did allow race to be considered as one of many admission factors for the purpose of achieving a diverse student body.
In 1995 and 1996, two lawsuits challenged the constitutionality of using race in the admission processes at the University of Michigan and the University of Michigan Law School. In 1995, Jennifer Gratz was denied admission to the University of Michigan undergraduate program, and a year later Barbara Grutter was rejected from the University of Michigan Law School. Both plaintiffs argued that their academic credentials and extracurricular activities should have awarded them a spot at the University. They claimed they were subjected to a form of reverse discrimination due to the university's affirmative action policies. The University of Michigan argued that its admission criteria were constitutional, and that the policies fostered a racially and ethnically diverse student body.
In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court Ruled in the Gratz v. Bollinger case that the point system used by the University of Michigan for undergraduate admissions was unconstitutional. The admissions policy was based on 150 points, and it awarded points based on items such as race (20 points), athletic ability (20 points), depth of essay (up to 3 points), leadership and service (up to 5 points) and personal achievement (up to 5 points). The point system, therefore, automatically awarded admission points to underrepresented minorities. In the majority decision, Chief Justice Rehnquist stated that the University of Michigan had violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by using an overly mechanized system as a way to include race in admission decisions.
The Grutter v. Bollinger case of was also decided in 2003. In a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly upheld the decision to allow colleges and universities to use race as a component in their admissions policies by ruling in favor of the University of Michigan’s law school admissions policy. Sandra Day O'Connor stated that the Constitution "does not prohibit the law school's narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body."
The Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger rulings are regarded as the most important since the Bakke decision. Most colleges and universities had previously followed the guidelines set forth by Bakke, stating that diversity is an integral component to a successful institution. They treaded lightly, however, unsure of how far race could be used in the admissions process. The Supreme Court's decisions in the landmark University of Michigan cases clarified this gray area and provided definitive guidance for affirmative action policies. The 2003 rulings also abrogated the Hopwood v. Texas ruling, thus permitting colleges in Texas and other states under the Fifth Circuit jurisdiction to reinstate affirmative action policies.