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43 Years Of Abolished Quota System & The Harvard’s Affirmative Action

Regents of University of California v. Bakke Case Brief Summary | Law Case Explained - YouTube

The landmark judgment of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decided on 28th June 1978, which formally barred the quota system in the college admission process in the U.S., completes its forty-three years of unturned jurisprudence.
The Judgement
The case involved a white applicant, Allan Bakke, and the Medical School of the University of California at Davis. Although having significantly higher grades than other recently admitted minority applicants, Bakke was denied admission to the medical school twice as the admission process allowed for sixteen percent reserved seats for the minorities, including Asians, American Indians, Blacks, and Chicanos. The reservation was part of the university’s affirmative action program to fill the lacunas of unfair exclusions of minority people from the medical profession. Following the denied admission, Bakke filed a lawsuit against the University of California, contending that he was subjected to what is called reverse discrimination (a concept where the majority feels discriminated against as opposed to the minority for reasons such as excessive reservation for the minorities or unavailability of opportunities for the majority). It is against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment.
The Supreme Court, in its judgment written by Justice Lewis Franklin Powell, ruled that the university’s quota system was unconstitutional as it explicitly discriminated against people solely based on their race. Further in its pronouncement, the court ordered the university to admit Bakke to medical school. Powell opined that the higher-educational institutions could consider race as one of the many factors in admissions but could not grant special quotas to applicants solely based on their race or ethnic origin. The ratio decidendi behind the judgment was that the University of California did not meet the benchmarks to qualify for such consideration. On the contrary, it violated the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, which prohibits a state from denying equal protection of laws to all. With his centrist opinion, Justice Powell concluded that if there can be a justification for affirmative action, it can only be the educational benefits of having a diverse student body.
How does India’s Reservation Policy compare With U.S.’s Affirmative Action?
The U.S. had longstanding exclusion of blacks from the mainstream and addressed the same; they had quotas in higher educational institutions. The situation is comparable to India’s discrimination against backward caste and the caste-based reservation system. The only significant difference was that the U.S. quota system was based upon race and ethnic origin, while the Indian reservation policy was laid on the foundation of a 2000-year old caste-system. The analogy between the state of affairs of the two nations can be further extended to Article 14 of the Indian Constitution and Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, both of which stated that the state should not deny to any individual under its jurisdiction equality before the law and equal protection of laws.
India’s Reservation Policy at the time of its framing was drafted keeping the foundational goal in mind, which was to allow equal opportunities to those classes which were excluded in academics. However, this caste-based reservation policy was further extended to include sex and economic conditions as other reservation parameters. The policy was initially made for a temporary period till the marginalized people get their place in the mainstream society; however, as it suited to the government to gain vote bank, time and again, the reservation has only seen an upsurge in its percentage. India’s policy follows direct reservation of seats in institutions for the marginalized people and some relaxation in age limit and qualifying marks. On the contrary, Bakke’s decision can be positively seen in various universities’ admission process in the States, where the quota-system in practice in the university admission process seized to be followed across the country. Moreover, in the coming years, the affirmative action program to consider race as one of many pointers in the admission process, which was “allowed” by the court in Bakke’s decision, was too banned in many states of the U.S.
The Upheaval That Can Potentially End Affirmative Action Unconditionally In The States
Students For Fair Admissions (SFFA), in a lawsuit filed in 2014 against Harvard University, alleged that the university follows a race-conscious admission process that ultimately discriminates against Asian-American applicants; hence it violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act 1964. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, 1964 prohibits institutions that receive federal funds from discriminating based on race, colour, or national origin. The counter-contention of Harvard was that the university’s admission process was in accordance with the Supreme Court’s judgment in Bakke’s Decision (1978) and Grutter v. Bollinger (2003). The only intention of the university to incorporate race as one factor for admission was to obtain educational benefits that flow from a diverse student crowd. If the system were rejected, the ability of the universities across the country to create a diverse community of students on campuses would be jeopardized.
The ruling came in favour of Harvard, and the court observed that its race-conscious admission process was constitutional as the extent of such consideration was just “enough” to hold its constitutionality.
In continuation of the lawsuit, a fresh petition has been filed in the Supreme Court by the SFFA to grant a writ of certiorari and hear the case again. In the petition, SFFA essentially challenges the 2003 ruling of Grutter v. Bollinger along with the lower court’s decision in the same Harvard case. The court allegedly delayed the case significantly and has asked the Biden government’s view on the issue. The experts of the field believe that the writ will be granted, not necessarily because the issue demands it but due to the conservative bench of the Supreme Court. Moreover, it is most likely that the court’s ruling, if such a petition is accepted, will be in favor of SFFA. However, the unpredictability factor maintains its share in the issue. The aftermath of such a ruling will be an end of the race-conscious affirmative action program across the country.
The landmark judgment of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke became the torchbearer in abolishing the race-conscious quota system in the U.S. with its precedence unturned to date. The ruling, if not exactly, then at least significantly can be seen in the Indian context where the foundation of the reservation system seems to be jeopardized. The success of a reservation policy lies in its extinction with time which indicates that the oppressed section has been uplifted to a degree where they do not need such aid anymore. Where the United States can be seen endeavouring towards ending the race-conscious affirmative action programs, India has only seen an increase in reserved seats. India has entangled itself in the reservation policy so gravely by the government’s vote bank politics that it ultimately contributes to an adverse effect known as “reverse discrimination” in society. Distinctively, the Harvard case will prove to be another landmark judgment in the history of the States’ higher education admission process if the ruling comes in favour of the SFFA, which is most likely to come true.



Himanshu is a first-year law student at the National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi, Jharkhand.

1 Comment

  1. Sindhu Acharya says:

    Dear Jithin,

    This is a very well written article for a first year law student and your research with respect to the American jurisprudence on affirmative action is good! This can be a much better article if you also looked into the Indian Supreme Court’s judgments on reservation to analyse whether affirmative action fits within Indian Constitution. Particularly in light of Article 15(4). Perhaps your conclusions may also change based on your research? Good luck! 🙂

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