Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978)


There is a long history of exclusion and underrepresentation of minority populations within the field of medicine. Because of this long discriminatory history, the University of California Davis Medical School created an affirmative action program to better diversify its student body, and the nation’s upcoming doctors. In the 1971 version of this policy, UC Davis set aside sixteen out of one hundred admissions for students of color. However, these students still had to meet the qualifications. Allan Bakke, a White man, applied to UC Davis’ Medical School twice, but was rejected both times. Bakke was rejected by all twelve medical schools to which he applied. Since Bakke had a higher grade point average and test scores than the minority students admitted to UC Davis Medical School, he claimed he was rejected because of his race. 

Bakke sued the school under Title VI Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act states that “No person… shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the denial of equal protection of the laws by the states. The University claimed that they were intentionally trying to remediate a historic inequity and foster diversity within the school. The Supreme Court was left to decide if the specific affirmative action policy is constitutional and if race can ever be considered a factor in admissions. 


In a plurality decision written by Justice Lewis Powell, the Court decided to grant Bakke admission to the UC Davis Medical School because the admissions policy violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Protection Clause. Powell used strict scrutiny towards racial classifications, leading to a heavy burden of proof, and narrowly tailored programming. The Court also decided not to give weight to past discrimination in reviewing an admissions policy. However, the Court ruled that race could be one factor considered in admissions, granting constitutionality to some but not all affirmative action policies. Race could not be the only factor, and racial quotas like the one used by UC Davis was ruled unconstitutional. No other Justice completely agreed with the decision, making it a plurality instead of a majority opinion. 


Many of the Justices dissented in part and agreed in part. Four of the dissenting Justices argued that intermediate scrutiny should be used for racial classifications, not the strict scrutiny standard which Justice Powell utilized. They also gave more weight to racial classifications serving an important objective of diversity. However, Justice John Paul Stevens dissented for a different reason, claiming that affirmative action policies are a direct violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. 


Since the Bakke decision, many colleges have started to use Harvard’s plus system, which considers identification as a racial minority as a plus along with other qualifications. In 2003, there were two other cases about affirmative action policies which reached the Supreme Court. In Gratz v Bollinger, the Court decided that the University of Michigan’s undergraduate admissions program was unconstitutional since it was not narrowly tailored enough to meet the strict scrutiny standard and was viewed by the Court as a quota system. However, in Grutter v. Bollinger, the Court upheld the University of Michigan’s Law School admissions since it stayed within the Bakke framework, mirroring Harvard’s plus system, with racial and ethnic diversity as the goal. 

Think Further

  1. When using racial classifications should there be a strict or intermediate scrutiny standard? 
  2. Is diversity and remediation for past inequities sufficient means to justify an affirmative action policy? 
  3. Are there any policies outside of the affirmative action framework that you think could better foster diversity within a student body?


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Learn More

  1. Gillman, Howard. American Constitutionalism, Second Edition. Volume II Rights and Liberties. [Virtual Source Bookshelf].
  2. “Regents of the University of California v. Bakke.” Casebriefs,
  3. “Regents of the University of California v. Bakke.” Oyez,