DETROIT — Michigan’s ban on affirmative action in college admissions was declared unconstitutional Thursday by a deeply divided federal appeals court, six years after state voters said race could not be an issue in choosing students.
In an 8-to-7 decision, the court said the 2006 amendment to the Michigan Constitution is illegal because it presents an extraordinary burden to opponents who would have to mount their own long, expensive campaign through the ballot box to protect affirmative action.
That burden ‘‘undermines the Equal Protection Clause’s guarantee that all citizens ought to have equal access to the tools of political change,’’ said Judge R. Guy Cole Jr., writing for the majority at the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati.
The court said having supporters and opponents debate affirmative action through the governing boards of each public university would be much fairer than cementing a ban in the constitution, which it referred to as home of ‘‘the highest level’’ of public policy.
The court did not comment on a portion of the amendment that deals with government hiring.
The decision is limited to states in the Sixth Circuit, which includes Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee. But it also raises the odds that the Supreme Court may get involved. A very similar law in California was upheld by a San Francisco-based appeals court, and the Supreme Court could choose to resolve the conflicting decisions of that court and the Sixth Circuit on voter-approved bans.
State Attorney General Bill Schuette, a supporter of the ban, said he would ask the nation’s highest court to take the case.
‘‘Entrance to our great universities must be based upon merit,’’ he said.
George Washington, a Detroit attorney for the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, said the ruling is a ‘‘tremendous victory.’’ He predicted that the case will move to the Supreme Court.
‘‘What this really means is thousands of blacks and Latinos who would not have had a chance to go to our most selective universities will have the chance to become lawyers, doctors, and leaders of all fields,’’ Washington said.
This is the second time that the appeals court has examined Michigan’s affirmative action issue. A three-judge panel last year also found the ban unconstitutional for similar reasons.