California Supreme Court Rules in Case Challenging Ban on Affirmative Action

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August 3, 2010
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On August 2, the California Supreme Court ruled 6-1 that Proposition 209, the 1996 initiative barring state affirmative action programs based on race and gender, does not violate the federal constitution.

The decision arose from a lawsuit filed by two white contractors who objected to a 2003 San Francisco ordinance that gives firms owned by racial minorities and women a slight advantage in bids for city contracts.

However, Justice Kathryn Werdegar, writing for the majority, said that the San Francisco ordinance does not necessarily violate Proposition 209.  Werdegar wrote that San Francisco's affirmative action program is valid if the city can prove that it is narrowly defined and necessary to overcome intentional discrimination against businesses owned by racial minorities and women.

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Immediately after the passage of Proposition 209 by 54% of voters in November 1996, Governor Pete Wilson identified 31 state-funded programs for elimination or curtailment, including summer science programs for elementary school students and hiring programs that ensured recruitment from minority communities. 

Civil rights attorneys filed a class action lawsuit to stop Proposition 209 from taking effect. In late December 1996, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson issued a preliminary injunction barring enforcement of the initiative.  In 1997, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Judge Henderson's ruling.