US court to rule on race issue

December 13, 2002

A controversy that has lain largely dormant for more than two decades is roaring back to life with a decision by the US Supreme Court to consider whether race can be taken into account in university admissions.

The Supreme Court will consider the issue in hearings next year. The deliberations will specifically involve two cases, both brought by white applicants denied admission to the University of Michigan. But a ruling would affect every public university in the US.

That makes these "the most important civil rights cases to come before this court in a quarter of a century", according to James Cott, associate director of the Legal Defense and Education Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The Center for Individual Rights, a legal advocacy group that represents the students, called the cases "the most important challenge to affirmative action at public universities in American history".

The first case was filed by a white woman who sued the University of Michigan Law School after she did not win a place there in 1997. Although she initially won the case, the university appealed to a higher court, which held that there was a compelling interest to maintain racial and ethnic diversity on campus by giving preference to minority applicants.

The appeals court panel voted five to four in favour of the university. The minority contended that the university's policy that gave preference to non-whites constituted "a straightforward instance of racial discrimination".

Both sides said the Supreme Court's intervention would clear up longstanding confusion over racial preferences in university admissions.

Advocates for such preferences said non-whites were at a disadvantage because they tended to come from poorer, urban schools and faced alleged racial discrimination in entrance examinations.

They filed a brief with the court that said: "Absent affirmative action, the admissions programme at Michigan or any other law school would function as a rigidly unfair double standard, downgrading the achievements and promise of black, Latino and native American applicants."

The second case was brought by two white undergraduate applicants turned down for admission to Michigan. That case also was resolved by lower courts in the university's favour. But the students appealed and the Supreme Court agreed to consider both cases together.

The last time the court ruled on affirmative action in college admissions was in 1978 in the Bakke case, which held that public universities could not set quotas for minority students, but could take race into account in admissions to maintain diversity on campus.

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