The case originated in 1996 when Barbara Grutter, a white Michigan resident with a 3.8 GPA and 161 LSAT score, was rejected by the University of Michigan Law School. She filed suit in December 1997, alleging that the university had discriminated against her on the basis of race in violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She said she was rejected because the Law School used race as a "predominant" factor, giving applicants belonging to underrepresented minority groups (African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans) a significantly greater chance of admission than students with similar credentials from overrepresented racial groups (Whites and Asian Americans), and that the university had no compelling interest to justify that use of race.
The named defendant in the case was Lee Bollinger, the president of the university, who fought for the university's existing affirmative action policies as a necessary plus factor in achieving greater diversity, a compelling interest of the University.
In March 2001, U.S. District Court Judge Bernard A. Friedman ruled that the admissions policies were unconstitutional because they "clearly consider" race and are "practically indistinguishable from a quota system." In May 2002, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision, citing the Bakke decision and allowing the use of race to further the "compelling interest" of diversity. The case was subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court. The Court agreed to hear the case, the first time the Court had heard cases on affirmative action since the landmark Bakke decision of 25 years prior.
On April 1, 2003 the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments for the case, which were allowed to be audio recorded for the public news media, only the second time the court has allowed public recording of an oral argument.
In the court's ruling, Justice O'Connor's majority opinion held that the United States 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 court noted that sometime in the future, perhaps twenty-five years hence, racial affirmative action would no longer be necessary in order to promote diversity. It said that while affirmative action was appropriate today, it should not become a permanent policy and that eventually a colorblind policy should be implemented. The opinion read, "Race-conscious admissions policies must be limited in time. The Court takes the Law School at its word that it would like nothing better than to find a race-neutral admissions formula and will terminate its use of racial preferences as soon as practicable. The Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today."
The decision largely upheld the decision in 1978's Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case which allowed race to be a consideration in admissions policy, but held that quotas were illegal.
Public universities and institutes of higher education across the nation are now allowed to use race as a plus in determining whether a student should be admitted. While race may not be the only factor, the court has specifically allowed any state board of admissions to take race into consideration along with other individualized factors in reviewing a student's application. O'Connor's opinion ends the inquiry as to whether diversity in higher education is a compelling governmental interest. As long as the program is narrowly tailored to achieve that end, the court will uphold it as Constitutional.
The case was heard in conjunction with Gratz v. Bollinger, in which the Supreme Court struck down the University of Michigan's more rigid, point-based undergraduate affirmative action policy.