Bakke v. Board of Regents of California (June 28, 1978)Controversial 5 to 4 decision handed down June 28, 1978, in which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional rigid racial quotas, or “set-asides,” for admission to a university medical school.
Seeking greater racial diversity, in 1978 the University of California Medical School at Davis set aside 16 of the 100 freshman slots (out of 2,664 applicants) for African American, Asian, Native American, and Latino applicants, and the school established lower academic requirements for these individuals than for the 84 regular-admission candidates. Alan Bakke, a white male, had twice applied to the medical school, and both times the admissions board rejected his application. He then discovered that he had higher scores on the medical school examination than those who had been admitted under the set-aside quotas.He filed a lawsuit that went to the California Superior Court, arguing that the set-aside program violated his rights under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which forbids racial or ethnic quotas in any state program receiving federal funds. He also claimed that the Davis admissions program violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The California court agreed with Bakke but refused to order the university to admit him, claiming he had not proven that he would have qualified for admission without the restrictions of the quotas.
Bakke appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments on October 12, 1977. Although the Court issued six opinions, Justice F. Lewis Powell Jr. announced the decision. He wrote that the “plain meaning” of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited the exclusion of any individual solely on racial grounds in federally funded state programs. He further asserted that the set-aside program at the Davis medical school “totally excluded” Bakke from competing “with applicants from the preferred groups for the special admission seats” and therefore denied him the “equal protection” required by the Fourteenth Amendment. However, Powell justified a less rigid, competitive program of admission in which the university could consider race and ethnicity as one of many factors in the goal of establishing a “diverse student body.”
The decision had little immediate impact on set-aside programs at other university postgraduate schools. It only restricted the use of quotas in admissions in state medical schools and left open later challenges of quotas in law schools and graduate schools.
—Robert P. Sutton
Jeffries, John C. Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr.: Biography. New York: Scribner’s, 1994.
O’Neill, Timothy J. Bakke and the Politics of Equality. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1985.
Wilkinson, J. Harvie. From Brown to Bakke: The Supreme Court and School Integration. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
See also: Education.