Meet the Women Behind the Supreme Court’s Controversial Affirmative Action Decision

PHOTO: Shanta Driver arrives at the Supreme Court in Washington, Oct. 15, 2013.

Behind the scenes of every controversial Supreme Court decision are real people: Homer Plessy, of Plessy v. Ferguson. Oliver Brown, of Brown v. Board of Education. Mildred Loving, of Loving v. Virginia.

And this week’s landmark decision was no different.

The Supreme Court upheld Michigan’s ban on affirmative action in public university admissions on Tuesday in a case called Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action.

For one woman, the court’s decision heralds a new age of equality and represents an important step in the nation’s long trudge towards a truly colorblind society. For another, the decision is appalling –- practically a re-legalization of Jim Crow.

In their own eyes, both women are civil rights crusaders -- but in a pair of interviews with ABC News this week, it’s clear how bitterly opposed they remain.

JENNIFER GRATZ: ‘I could have walked away’

PHOTO: Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and Jennifer Gratz, CEO of XIV Foundationspeak, speak during a press conference outside the Supreme Court, Oct. 15, 2013, in Washington.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and Jennifer Gratz, CEO of XIV Foundationspeak, speak during a press conference outside the Supreme Court, Oct. 15, 2013, in Washington.

The woman who spearheaded the affirmative action prohibition, Jennifer Gratz, calls the court’s ruling “a victory for the people of Michigan –- a victory for equality.”

This isn’t the first time she has battled race-conscious admission policies in the Great Lakes State.

Gratz was denied admittance to the state’s flagship university, the University of Michigan, in 1995. She sued, claiming that the school’s affirmative action policy -– a point-based system that automatically awarded minority students one-fifth of the 100 points required for undergraduate admission -– amounted to racial discrimination. It violated the Equal Protection Clause, her lawyers said, and was therefore unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court agreed, saying U-Michigan’s undergraduate admission policy made race “decisive for virtually every minimally qualified ... minority applicant.” But in a ruling handed down the same day, the justices made it clear that a different system would have been acceptable. Diversity, the court said, constitutes a “compelling state interest” that “justifies” considering race.

“I could have walked away at that point,” Gratz told ABC News. “But that win was simply a personal victory, not a victory for the principle.”

So Gratz launched the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, a ballot measure that banned “preferential treatment ... on the basis of race” at public universities and other public institutions.

“That was a nasty campaign, to say the least,” Gratz said. “But I think the government should get out of this business [of focusing on race] and judge people on their character.”

In Gratz’s view, the only “true” equality is completely colorblind. The government’s pre-occupation with racial divisions obscures other aspects of diversity, she said.

She launched the XIV Foundation, which advocates for the MCRI, based on the premise that “equal treatment is the essence of civil rights.” The backlash was intense.

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