Brigida "Bridget" Benitez spent six long years working on a pair of cases for the University of Michigan admissions office. When the Supreme Court finally settled the matter in June 2003, it marked what the New York Times called "the most important statement on affirmative action in a quarter century." Plaintiff and former University of Michigan president Lee Bollinger declared it "a great victory for American higher education, and for the nation as a whole."
At issue in the cases – involving three white college applicants who claimed discrimination because race was considered in the application process – was whether diversity
at public universities was a compelling state interest and whether the specific Michigan programs were "narrowly tailored" to address discrimination, as the Supreme Court had previously required.
Ultimately, although the Michigan cases yielded a split decision – striking down
an undergraduate numerical system. But by upholding the university law school's system, the court clearly upheld the principle of a compelling public interest for diversity in education.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime case," says Ms. Benitez, partner at the law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr in Wash-ington, D.C. "I wanted to protect the opportunity for millions of people to get a college education."
Ms. Benitez's influential role in the nationally significant cases helped propel her selection as Hispanic Business magazine's 2005 Woman of the Year, honoring the national impact of her accomplishments and her long-term commitment to progress in the Hispanic community, as well as her leadership, innovation, vision, and character.
John Payton, a partner at Wilmer Cutler and one of the most prominent African-American attorneys in the nation, recalls asking Ms. Benitez to join the University of Michigan cases soon after the firm took them in 1997.
At the time, he says, people considered affirmative action a lost cause. The consensus opinion was that it was going to die, so the attorneys should "just make the noble arguments and let the end come," Mr. Payton says. "But we were determined to talk around that argument. We were in this to win, not just to play it out."
With Ms. Benitez as second chair, the legal team set out to develop new arguments about the real-world benefits of affirmative action, rather than relying on the idealism of social justice. The litigators assembled a massive body of evidence from psychologists, demographers, sociologists, educators, and historians.
"We presented concrete data on the benefits of diversity in education," Ms. Benitez says. "The experts came together, all to tell the story of how diversity helps all students."
The court quickly grasped the argument. In her opinion for the majority, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote: "These benefits are not theoretical but real, as major American businesses have made clear that the skills needed in today's increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints."
One example of the arguments presented by Ms. Benitez and her team involved affirmative action in the military. During the Vietnam War, the Army had an all-white officer corps while the enlisted men were disproportionately minority. In combat conditions, the racial tensions contributed to what the military officially called "loss of unit cohesion." "What that means is that the soldiers were sometimes attacking their leaders and killing them," Mr. Payton explains.
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