A federal appeals court ruled on Friday that an amendment to the Michigan Constitution prohibiting affirmative action in the state's public colleges and universities is unconstitutional, overturning a ban on preferential admissions adopted by voters in 2006.
In a 2-to-1 vote, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that Proposal 2, as the ballot measure was known, deprived members of racial minority groups in Michigan of their 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law by embedding the issue of affirmative action into the state's Constitution, where it was prohibitively difficult for a minority group to challenge.
"This ruling is a tremendous victory for affirmative action," said George Washington, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration, and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality by Any Means Necessary (commonly known as BAMN). "It means that literally thousands of black, Latino, and Native American students who would never have had the chance to go to public universities in the state of Michigan now have that chance."
The ruling, which overturned a 2008 decision by a federal district-court judge, concerns a ballot measure that passed with 58 percent of the vote.
Friday's decision caps a five-year campaign by BAMN to challenge the Michigan law. It also raises a new set of legal questions for states with constitutional bans on preferential admissions and hiring. California, Washington, and Nebraska have similar laws, but they are not directly challenged by the new ruling, which is limited to the states in the Sixth Circuit (Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee).
"Proposal 2 unconstitutionally alters Michigan's political structure by impermissibly burdening racial minorities," wrote Judge Ransey Guy Cole Jr. in the majority opinion, on which he was joined by Judge Martha Craig Daughtrey. Judge Julia Smith Gibbons delivered a separate opinion that concurred in part but rejected the majority's assertion that Proposal 2 violated the equal-protection rights of minority residents of Michigan.
Michael E. Rosman, general counsel of the Center for Individual Rights, a nonprofit Washington law group that helped represent one of the defendants, said that the reasoning applied by the court was unsound.
"Proposal 2 is a constitutional provision that basically requires equal protection under the law," he said. "To say that the provision violates the equal-protection clause is, at the very least, counterintuitive."
Michigan's attorney general, Bill Schuette, said in a written statement that he would appeal the ruling to the full Sixth Circuit, which includes 16 judges and is considered more conservative over all than the three-judge panel that ruled on Friday. Two members of the panel, Judge Cole and Judge Daughtrey, were appointed by a Democratic president, Bill Clinton.
"Entrance to our great universities must be based upon merit, and I will continue the fight for equality, fairness, and rule of law," Mr. Schuette said in the statement.
Representatives of Michigan State University said they did not yet know if the ruling would affect admissions procedures for the coming year.
"As a party to the litigation, we are in the process of carefully reviewing this complex opinion," said Heather C. Swain, interim vice president for university relations, in a written statement. "This is a significant issue that impacts universities, and we need to give it thoughtful consideration."