Dillard, Godfrey J. 1948–
Godfrey J. Dillard 1948–
Attorney Godfrey J. Dillard played a significant but generally unnoticed role in the pivotal 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld the University of Michigan’s race-based admissions policy. The case was considered a victory for affirmative-action programs at state schools like Michigan, but incited tremendous debate over the validity of such policies at public institutions. Though Dillard served only as lead counsel for a group of minority students and civil-rights groups that supported the school’s admissions policy, the fact that the court allowed current students to present their arguments in support of maintaining a diverse student body was a historic legal first. “People of color should be allowed to come into these cases, as parties, not as outside observers while the majority makes the decisions for us,” Dillard told Black Issues in Higher Education journalist Erik Lords. “Black and Hispanic students are the ones who could be hurt the most by this.”
Dillard is a product of the same University of Michigan law school that later became party to the court challenge. Born in 1948, he grew up in Detroit, where his father owned a grocery store but died of a heart attack at age 33. Dillard’s mother then used the life-insurance settlement to buy a home on Boston Boulevard in Detroit’s Boston-Edison neighborhood. Earlier in the twentieth century the boulevard was one of the city’s finest addresses, but at the time of Dillard’s youth it was an integrated area bordered by troubled neighborhoods.
Dillard’s mother sent him to Roman Catholic parochial schools in Detroit. As he recalled in an interview with Detroit Free Press writer Maryanne George, “I had an early recognition that I was a minority in a predominantly white school. But the nuns made me feel like a person with worth.” One early mentor for the fatherless Dillard was his lawyer neighbor, Hobart Taylor, who became the highest-ranking African-American male in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration in the mid-1960s. Taylor provided an important role model for Dillard, who would become the first African American to serve as a class president at his school during his sophomore year; in his senior year, he was first black ever to be elected student council president.
Entering Vanderbilt University on an athletic scholarship in 1966, Dillard was one of just seven other black students in the Nashville, Tennessee, school at the time. Remarkably, he was also the first black basketball player in the Southeastern Conference of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). He was sidelined by a knee injury, however, and wound up completing his undergraduate education closer to home, at Eastern Michigan University. After earning his philosophy degree in 1970, he won a slot in the 1973 class at the University of Michigan law school. When he finished, he traveled overseas for a time, and earned another graduate degree from the School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He went to work for the U.S. State Department, serving as deputy general consul in Zaire in the early 1980s.
Back in Detroit, Dillard joined one of the city’s top small firms, Evans & Luptak, and began deploying his
At a Glance…
Born in 1948, in Detroit, Ml; son of Earl (a grocer) and Vera Dillard. Education: Attended Vanderbift University, 1960s; Eastern Michigan University, BA, philosophy, 1970; University of Michigan Law School, JD, 1973; George Washington University School of International Affairs, master’s degree, 1980.
Career: U.S. State Department, Zaire, deputy general consul, early 1980s; Evans & Luptak, Detroit, Ml, associate attorney in business and international law, 1980s and 1990s; attorney in private practice.
Memberships: Founding member, Citizens for Affirmative Action’s Preservation.
Awards: University of Michigan, Leonard B. Sain Distinguished Alumnus Award, 2001.
Addresses: Office — 535 Griswold St., Ste. 2500, Detroit, Ml 48226-3685.
expertise in civil-rights cases. He successfully brought suit in 1983 against a private college, the University of Detroit, claiming that its law school discriminated against black students. A summer program that poorer-scoring, usually minority applicants were compelled to complete before being granted full student status failed to adequately prepare them, the plaintiffs argued; as a result, one in three black students were flunking out of U. of D.’s law school. The case was dismissed in a local circuit court, but was reinstated by Michigan’s Court of Appeals. From there, state Supreme Court justices agreed with Dillard and his plaintiffs, and the matter was settled by a consent decree.
Dillard worked on the University of Detroit case with a civil-rights activist of an older generation, Milton Henry, who had taken part in several notable struggles in the early 1960s. Henry served as a longtime mentor to Dillard, and when the two learned about the University of Michigan case in the mid-1990s, they decided to take it on pro bono, or free of charge. The lawsuit first involved two white students, Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hamacher, who had been rejected for undergraduate admission. It later invited Barbara Grutter, a white student whose application to the U. of M.’s law school was turned down.
Their cases were filed by the Center for Individual Rights, which worked to overturn affirmative-action policies. The students’ case hinged upon policies that university admissions-office personnel used to determine the demographics of an entering class. A student’s application was given or subtracted points for various factors, which included test scores, grades, and race. This gave the entering class a diverse racial makeup, and had been used by state schools for some twenty years to correct past racial imbalances. Some white applicants, for example, earned points in the admissions process for being a “legacy”—one with a parent or grandparent who had graduated from the school. But because so few minorities were admitted in the pre-civil-rights era, black students as a whole did not enter on the same playing field, even if their grades, test scores, and extra-curricular activities proved equally outstanding.
Dillard represented a group of minority students who asked to be able to present their case in support of the University of Michigan admissions policies. The group also included the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. It was the first time that such a group was allowed to enter an affrimative-action case; in the past, courts had rejected their petitions, partly on the grounds that their arguments might resurrect an institution’s past history of racism. The case became a hot-button political issue for months before its 2003 outcome, which was eagerly awaited by most public universities that use race-based admissions policies. Even President George W. Bush stepped into fray, calling the university’s policies “fundamentally flawed,” according to Black Issues in Higher Education journalist Erik Lords.
Dillard’s opportunity to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court was thwarted, however, when the minority students he represented were denied permission to present their oral arguments before the High Court bench in March of 2003. Dillard expressed dismay that University of Michigan lawyers did not give up some of their time allotted to argue their case. “They led us to believe they were going to give us time, and at the last minute they pulled the rug out from under us,” he told George in the Detroit Free Press.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in the end, upheld the use of race as a factor when determining admission, finding that the use of racial preferences does not violate the constitutional rights of other applicants. Not long afterward, an anti-affirmative action group began collecting signatures for a state ballot referendum that would prevent Michigan universities from using racial preferences. Dillard and Henry immediately filed a suit to block the petition drive. “This referendum is a direct attack on racial preferences, and racial preferences are not unconstitutional and do not per se violate the rights of whites,” the Detroit News quoted Dillard as saying.
Dillard is a founding member of the Citizens for Affirmative Action’s Preservation. His mentor, Milton Henry, told the Detroit Free Press that Dillard “has a sense of service. He doesn’t just say, ‘I got mine; you get yours.’” Henry told George, “He realizes that he was privileged to go to a great law school and wants to keep the doors open for others. He makes the vision real.”
Black Issues in Higher Education, October 14, 1999, p. 38; December 7, 2000, p. 18; February 27, 2003, p. 26; April 10, 2003, p. 15.
Buffalo News, March 14, 2004, p. B3.
Detroit Free Press, September 11, 1983, p. 3A; September 6, 1985, p. 10A; August 12, 1999, p. IB; March 11, 2003, p. 1B.
Detroit News, January 27, 2004.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, November 15, 2000; November 16, 2000.
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