• Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Supreme Court dealt a serious blow to affirmative action programs when it held that state and local governments must justify racial preferences by the standard of a compelling governmental interest.

In 1983 the city council of Richmond, Virginia, enacted an affirmative action requirement that the city’s prime contractors must award at least 30 percent of their subcontracts to minority-owned businesses. The J. A. Croson plumbing company sued the city, arguing that the set-aside requirement violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The city referred to Fullilove v. Klutznick[case]Fullilove v. Klutznick[Fullilove v. Klutznick] (1980), which upheld a federal program that required a 10 percent set-aside for minority businesses.Affirmative action;Richmond v. J. A. Croson Co.[Richmond v. J. A. Croson Co.]

By a 6-3 majority, the Supreme Court struck down Richmond’s plan. Sandra Day O’Connor’sO’Connor, Sandra Day[OConnor, Sandra Day];Richmond v. J. A. Croson Co.[Richmond v. J. A. Croson Co.] majority opinion noted that the plan denied particular people “the opportunity to compete for a fixed percentage of public contracts based solely upon their race.” She instructed the lower courts to judge such preferences, regardless of whether they involved quotas, by the demanding standard of strict scrutiny. This meant that an affirmative action plan must be narrowly tailored to satisfy a compelling governmental interest and that it must be justified by a showing of past discrimination, not just a generalized assertion of societal discrimination.

The Court expanded the Croson ruling to apply to federal legislation in Adarand Constructors v. Peña[case]Adarand Constructors v. Peña[Adarand Constructors v. Peña] (1995).

Adarand Constructors v. Peña

Affirmative action

Equal protection clause

Fullilove v. Klutznick

Judicial scrutiny

Race and discrimination

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