Professor Garces responds to Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action case

Andy Elder
May 06, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The U.S. Supreme Court on April 22 upheld a Michigan constitutional amendment that bans affirmative action in admissions to the state’s public universities.

Liliana Garces, assistant professor of education and research associate at the Center for the Study of Higher Education, served as counsel of record for the Civil Rights Project at UCLA in an amicus curiae, or friend of the court, brief filed in the case.

The 6-to-2 ruling leaves in place a Michigan law, originally known as Proposal 2, which was approved by 58 percent of Michigan’s voters in 2006. That vote amended the state constitution to prohibit discrimination or preferential treatment in public education, government contracting and public employment.

“I was disappointed in the final judgment reversing the lower court opinion, which had struck down the law as unconstitutional because it created unequal access to the political process. But I was heartened by Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s powerful dissent,” Garces said.

“One of the things that I found powerful about her dissent is that she used social science research to support her rationale,” she continued.

The case, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action et al., examined the constitutionality of the Michigan ban. In 2012, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals struck it down, saying it violated the federal Constitution’s equal protection clause.

As counsel of record, Garces, who earned a law degree at the University of Southern California School of Law, was the author of the brief and oversaw the official filing to the Supreme Court.

Amicus curiae briefs are those filed by individuals or organizations that have an interest in the outcome of a case but aren’t directly involved in the lawsuit.

Garces represented the Civil Rights Project by presenting findings from research studies she, and others, conducted that support the sixth circuit’s decision for why Proposal 2 is unconstitutional.

Sotomayor referenced those findings in the longest, most passionate and most significant dissent of her career. Her opinion, one of five offered on the ruling, was longer than the other four opinions combined.

“There was a lot of disagreement among the justices about what the rationale for the judgment should be. Fundamentally, they read the guarantees of the equal protection clause differently,” Garces said. “The plurality tried to distinguish this case from prior cases in which the court had found a violation.”

“Even Justice Scalia noted that the plurality reinterpreted precedent ‘beyond recognition,’ and Justice Sotomayor agreed. Justice Sotomayor’s dissent lays out what I believe to be an interpretation of the equal protection clause that is in line with prior court decisions and the realities of our society, where race continues to matter.”

This wasn’t the first time Garces has participated in a case at the Supreme Court level. She has now served as counsel of record in three amicus curiae briefs for the Supreme Court, including the court’s most recent decision regarding the constitutionality of race-conscious admissions policies in Fisher v. University of Texas and a previous case involving the constitutionality of K-12 voluntary desegregation policies.

In the amicus brief she filed in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action et al., Garces included a couple of her own published research articles.

“The findings from these studies were relevant in the case to show the detrimental consequences that bans on affirmative action have had on questions of access and opportunity for students of color,” she said.

The College of Education will host an Education and Civil Rights Conference in June where Garces and colleagues from around the country will discuss this most recent ruling, address more generally the inabilities of students of color to access high quality education and seek strategies to improve educational access.

  • A head shot of Liliana Garces

    Liliana Garces is an assistant professor of education at Penn State and research associate at the Center for the Study of Higher Education.

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated January 09, 2015