Conservatives hope an Appeals Court ruling against using race as a basis of admissions to the University of Texas has sounded the death knell for affirmative action programmes across the United States.
Three federal judges decided that there was no "compelling reason . . . to elevate some races over others", stunning Texas University officials, who announced they were suspending admissions for a week at all 15 campuses to consider the impact.
The case was brought on behalf of a white female student, Cheryl Hopwood, who was denied a place at the University of Texas law school in 1992. Texas is known as one of the top-ranking law schools in the US and a popular choice for students, who submit 4,000 applications a year for some 500 places.
The law school ran an admissions system aimed to ensure that 10 per cent of successful applicants were Mexican and 5 per cent black. Texas has a large and growing immigrant population. It gave preferential treatment to minority students in a middle category whose grades were not good enough to guarantee a place or bad enough to ensure rejection.
Ms Hopwood was rejected even though she had scored higher grades than all but one of 41 black students and three of 55 Latino students admitted that year.
Texas claimed she was a mediocre student, but the judges ruled she was a victim of racial discrimination and ordered the university to admit her and pay damages.
Legal experts first believed the lawsuit could settle the fate of increasingly controversial affirmative action programmes at universities. This year the University of California, another giant in the public university system, agreed to drop all such programmes after a bitter internal battle.
The decision by the Fifth Circuit Appeals Court is immediately binding on Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. University officials must still decide whether to appeal to the Supreme Court, which last looked at the issue in 1978 and has moved decisively to the right since then.
A conservative legal group in Washington, the Center for Individual Rights, entered the case on Ms Hopwood's side. The CIR has taken a leading role in combatting what it regards as the excesses of "political correctness" and "multi-culturalism" on campuses.
Affirmative action, adopted by most big education institutions to reverse centuries of discrimination, has become one of the most sensitive political issues. Conservatives have claimed such programmes amount to racial "quotas".
At Texas, applications were colour-coded according to race and the university maintained a segregated "minority only" waiting list. Senior officials from other major universities had testified that its programmes were nothing unusual.
Even if adopted for the "wholesome purpose" of correcting imbalances in the student body, the judges said, "racial preferences appear to even the score only if one embraces the position that our society is appropriately viewed as divided into races". They were "no more rational" than choices based on physical size or blood type.