- Associated Press - Friday, November 27, 2015

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Warning the U.S. Supreme Court against taking a step backward, the family of segregation-busting icon Heman Sweatt has joined calls for preserving a University of Texas policy that uses race as one of several factors in picking incoming freshmen.

Scrapping the admissions policy, they argued, would endanger the gains made by Sweatt, a black man who broke a meaningful barrier when the Supreme Court ordered UT’s all-white law school to admit him in 1950, the Austin American-Statesman (https://atxne.ws/1NyDQ3i) reported.

“Today, UT honors the legacy of Heman Sweatt in many ways, none more important than its commitment to creating a genuinely diverse student body,” Sweatt’s relatives said in a friend-of-the-court brief. “It does so through an admissions policy that considers all aspects of an applicant’s character - including, in part, how that character has been shaped by race.”

The Sweatt family arguments were included in more than 80 friend-of-the-court briefs submitted this month by outside groups hoping to catch the attention of the nine justices before the case is argued Dec. 9.

On the other side, the American Center for Law and Justice asked the court to throw out UT’s admissions policy, saying the use of “race labeling” violates the Constitution’s promise to protect the “inherent, equal dignity of all persons.”

“There is only one ‘race’ of people - the human race,” said a brief from the center, a nonprofit conservative Christian advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

“Government efforts to pigeonhole groups of people into racial boxes . is both ultimately incoherent, as people of mixed ethnicity illustrate, and the hallmark of racism, as with the Nazi efforts to define Jews and the segregationist efforts to define ‘colored’ people,” the center said.

Few subjects spice up the Supreme Court’s docket more than race relations. And while most briefs in the UT case rely on dry recitations of legal theory and practice, several seek to draw the court’s attention to the social ramifications of its ruling, which is expected before the end of June.

Some, like the Sweatt family, argue that acknowledging and learning from America’s history of racial intolerance will make for a better future.

Others say changing times have made obsolete the use of racial preferences in hiring and school admissions.

All sides agree that the UT case could have long-term implications for the legality of racial diversity efforts on campuses and elsewhere.

Sweatt’s family - daughter Hemella Sweatt-Duplechan, a dermatological pathologist, and nephews James Sweatt III, a thoracic surgeon and former Texas State University System regent, and Heman Sweatt II, a UT graduate who had a career with AT&T; - urged the court to remember the struggle Sweatt began when the Houston letter carrier applied to UT’s School of Law on Feb. 26, 1946.

UT’s president at the time admitted that Sweatt was qualified for admission “save and except for the fact that he is a negro.” A Texas attorney general opinion extolled the “wise and long-continued policy of segregation,” and state courts found no reason to overturn the practice for Sweatt’s benefit.

Four years and four months after Sweatt applied, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ordered him to be admitted, saying Texas was failing to provide equal educational opportunities to black students.

More importantly, his family told the court in its recent friend-of-the-court brief, the 1950 ruling acknowledged that diversity, including racial diversity, was a compelling factor in effective higher education.

Today, Sweatt’s name is on the Travis County courthouse where he filed his civil rights lawsuit. The UT Law School has a scholarship and professorship in his name, and the southeast side of campus was renamed the Heman Sweatt Campus in 1987, five years after he died.

His family urged the court to continue acting in Sweatt’s memory.

“Sweatt’s story is but one chapter in Texas’ long history of segregation in the education of its black and Hispanic citizens,” their brief said. “That history, sadly, is turning back on itself. After years of steady integration - frequently under the firm hand of heroic federal judges - Texas schools are de facto resegregating.”

The current Supreme Court case was filed by Abigail Fisher, a white woman who claimed she was denied admission to UT in 2008 because of her skin color.

Casting the case as part of the complex and emotional national dialogue on racial preferences, Fisher’s lawyers told the court that UT shouldn’t be allowed to use race as a factor in favoring some applicants over others.

“By holding that UT discriminated against Ms. Fisher,” the lawyers urged, “the court will not only vindicate her equal-protection rights, it will remind universities that the use of race in admissions must be a last resort - not the rule.”

The American Center for Law and Justice took the argument further, saying governments and institutions violate the Constitution when they treat people differently based on racial labels.

“Color-blindness should be the touchstone of government action,” the center wrote.

About three-fourths of UT’s incoming freshmen are admitted based only on their high school class rank. The remaining applicants are reviewed in a format that takes grades, test scores, special talents, leadership qualities, family circumstances and other factors - including race and ethnicity - into account.

UT argues that such a “holistic” approach helps build a diverse student body that is essential for a complete college education.

The center disagreed.

“That the university professes a benign motive for this exercise does not change the fact that the very attempt to define . qualifying racial characteristics is repugnant to our constitutional ideals,” the center’s brief said.

This is Fisher’s second time before the Supreme Court, which returned her case to a lower appellate court for additional review in 2013. After the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld UT’s admissions policy last year, the Supreme Court agreed to take another look at the policy.

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Information from: Austin American-Statesman, https://www.statesman.com

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