WASHINGTON — Oral arguments in a high-profile Michigan case begin at 1 p.m. Tuesday on a law that bans the use of affirmative action in admissions to the state's public universities.
With Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, the Supreme Court is to decide whether Michigan voters had the right in 2006 to prohibit the use of race by public universities and colleges as a factor in setting admissions policies.
The arguments could reverberate across the nation: Eight states including Michigan bar the use of race in admissions policies. Many observers expect the state's prerogative to be upheld when a decision comes down next spring or later.
But opponents argue Michigan's law, which ensconces the changes in the state constitution, runs afoul of the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equal protection. They say it sets too high a hurdle — that of changing the state constitution — for minorities wanting to rewrite admissions policies.
No other group wanting to change admissions policies faces the same obstacle, they say.
"I really hope the court throws it (Michigan's Proposal 2) out," said Terri Mattingly, 53, of Detroit, who was among those waiting in line Tuesday morning to get into the chambers. It's just discrimination wrapped in a law."
At the University of Michigan, the percentage of black undergraduates from 2006 to 2012 dropped from 7% to 4.7%, and Hispanics from 4.9% to 4.3%.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette wonders what could be wrong with a state constitutional amendment that "shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin?"
Just about everything, said Mark Rosenbaum of the American Civil Liberties Union and a host of civil rights groups.
"While that makes a good bumper sticker … it's not the truth," Rosenbaum said. "Instead of healing the nation's wounds, it's actually opening those wounds."
Those two views are playing out before the Supreme Court almost precisely a year after the justices heard another major case on affirmative action.
The justices could go beyond the dispute over state bans and render a ruling that affects affirmative action policies nationwide — something they stopped short of doing in last year's Fisher v. University of Texas case by returning it to the lower courts to scrutinize more closely the use of racial preferences.
"This case gives conservatives a second bite at the affirmative action apple at the Supreme Court," says Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation, the nation's leading advocate for creating alternatives to racial preferences. The justices, he says, "may well use this case as a strong signal of what's to come."
The day is expected to draw big crowds of both protesters and media.
"It's worth being here just to say you were here," said Dave Lockwood, 43, of Grand Rapids, Mich. He thinks Proposal 2 should stay in place. "I know a decision won't be made for several months, but whatever the justices decide will be historic."