- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 3, 2002

The Supreme Court yesterday agreed to review whether universities may consider a student's race in admission decisions, setting the stage for a ruling that could outlaw affirmative action or establish a role for race in the college entrance process.
Both supporters and opponents of affirmative action said the stakes are high because many public and private colleges, law schools and medical schools have race-conscious admissions policies.
"No matter how the majority rules, the court now can't help but make a historic decision," said Terence J. Pell, chief executive officer of the Center for Individual Rights in Washington. "The court is clearly serving notice to all interested parties that 'high noon' is fast approaching."
The Center for Individual Rights is representing white applicants to the University of Michigan's law school and its undergraduate programs who say they were unconstitutionally turned down because of their race. They say the school's slots were given to less-qualified minorities, who had lower grades and standardized test scores.
A divided 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati upheld the Michigan school's practices in May, ruling that the Constitution allows colleges and graduate schools to seek "a meaningful number" of minority students, so long as the schools avoid a fixed quota system.
It did not yet rule on a companion case addressing the school's undergraduate policy, which was argued on the same day as the law-school case. The high court is expected to decide both cases by the end of June..
University officials say they are not surprised that the court chose to hear the cases and are prepared to defend their admissions policy before the justices.
"We know that students who live and learn at racially integrated campuses are better prepared to be effective in the courthouses and companies of 21st-century America," said Jeff Lehman, the Michigan law-school dean.
"To provide the highest quality legal education to our students, we have no choice but to employ affirmative action in admissions," he said.
Reviewing the cases gives the justices a chance to decide how much weight universities may assign to an applicant's race, something it did not do when it last addressed the issue in 1978, or to completely do away with affirmative action in higher education.
"These cases represent the most significant civil rights cases the Supreme Court will have decided in the last quarter-century," said Theodore Shaw, associate director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is arguing on behalf of black and Hispanic students in the cases.
"This issue is nothing less than whether the doors of opportunity remain open for students of color at highly selective institutions," he said.
In 1978, the court ruled 5-4 to outlaw racial quotas in college admissions policies. The ruling stemmed from a case involving a white man, Allan Bakke, who sued the University of California Medical School after the school didn't admit him but accepted minorities with lower test scores.
In an opinion, Justice Lewis F. Powell wrote that schools could still consider race, so long as they did not use quotas. Courts around the country have set contradictory rules.
Affirmative-action supporters say that without policies that encourage diverse student bodies, the top colleges in the country would not be representative. Opponents say those policies discriminate against white students.
"The future of America is contingent upon creating opportunities for tomorrow's leaders," said Shirley J. Wilcher, executive director of Washington D.C.-based Americans for a Fair Chance, a nonpartisan consortium of six of the country's leading civil rights legal organizations.
"As America is becoming increasingly diverse, affirmative action to promote a diverse student body and to remedy past discrimination continues to be a national imperative."
Nearly 15 percent of first-year Michigan law students are minorities. The Supreme Court was told by attorneys representing the university that without diversity considerations, the number of minorities in a freshman class could plunge to less than 4 percent.
Minority enrollment initially fell when race considerations were outlawed in public colleges in California, Florida, Texas and Washington state, educators say. But the numbers have begun to grow, proof that race does not have to be a factor in admissions, they say.
"This decision need not be Armageddon in terms of minority admissions to colleges and universities," said Sheldon Steinbach, vice president and legal adviser of the Washington D.C.-based American Council on Education.
"If race is ruled to be not a permissible way to admit students, then schools will use creative and constitutional means to secure a diverse student body."


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