Supreme Court Dismisses Adarand Discrimination Case

November 27, 2001 ( - The US Supreme Court abandoned plans to rule on a major affirmative action case, concluding that the lawsuit involving a white-owned contractor wasn't a good vehicle to decide reverse-discrimination claims.

The court’s unanimous, unsigned ruling in Adarand Constructors Inc. v. Mineta represents an anticlimactic end to what had been billed as a blockbuster affirmative action case.

The ruling essentially leaves in place a federal appeals court decision, which backed government anti-discrimination efforts.

The Supreme Court’s ruling laid out the procedural problems with the case, and concluded that the justices could not step in to set things right, nor address the merits of Adarand’s affirmative action complaint.

The high court agreed to hear the latest Adarand case in March, however at oral arguments in October, it was apparent that the two sides could no longer agree what they are fighting about, or whether there was even a case at all.

The case had developed procedural problems that several justices suggested were too messy to fix.

Larger Issues

Adarand began as a new test of whether the government can offer incentives to minorities or others traditionally disadvantaged in the business world, without unconstitutionally harming white-owned businesses.
Opponents of racial preferences had hoped the court would use the 11-year fight over government highway contracts to effectively declare federal affirmative action programs unconstitutional.

Opponents of affirmative action, including many conservatives close to the Bush administration, hoped the court would use the case to effectively eliminate affirmative action programs in the federal government.

Supporters of the practice feared another ruling in the Adarand dispute would make affirmative action even more constitutionally suspect than it is now.

1995 Ruling

The US Supreme Court’s 1995 Adarand decision drastically narrowed affirmative action by saying such aid must be narrowly tailored to meet a compelling government goal. At the time, it was assumed that very few affirmative action programs could meet that test.

That 5-4 ruling arose from a 1989 highway contract in which Adarand submitted the low bid, but still lost out to a Hispanic-owned firm. Adarand sued in 1990 and has been in court ever since.

Adarand’s latest appeal claimed that the government replaced the original contracting program with another that still gave its competitors unfair advantage.

The 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that the revised program met the Supreme Court’s constitutional test. Congress provided strong evidence that minority businesses suffered intentional discrimination in highway construction bidding, the appeals court said.

The case is Adarand Constructors Inc. v. Mineta, 00-730.

– Fred Schneyer

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