In Colleges, a Boost for Affirmative Action ; Appeals Panel Lets Law School Opt for Integration over Color-Blind Admissions

Article excerpt

A federal court ruling endorsing the use of race as a factor in admissions at the University of Michigan Law School gives a major boost to advocates of affirmative action.

At the very least, it promises to slow the momentum that in recent years had swung against consideration of race and ethnicity when trying to diversify enrollments in higher education. Moreover, the timing of the case is significant, coming after other appeals courts have staked out different positions on the issue.

Consequently, the biggest impact of Tuesday's decision may be to set up a showdown over affirmative action in college admissions before the Supreme Court - an issue the high tribunal hasn't taken up in a quarter century.

The more immediate impact of the Michigan case could be to bolster some other colleges, particularly in the Midwest, that consider race and ethnicity when trying to diversify enrollments. Schools in some other states, especially in the South, remain bound by federal rulings against affirmative action.

In this week's slender 5-4 ruling, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals - which includes Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee - upheld the legality of the Michigan law school's race-conscious admissions policy.

The court overruled a district court judge who in 2001 found the school's admissions policy to be "practically indistinguishable" from an illegal quota system.

"What the court did was to recognize that if an institution like ours is forced to choose between color blindness [that results in bland racial uniformity] and integration, then they may choose integration - as long as they do it in a cautious way," says Jeffrey Lehman, dean of the University of Michigan Law School.

Prior to the ruling, only the Ninth Circuit Court - which includes nine Rocky Mountain and West Coast states - had ruled in favor of race-based college admissions. Two other circuits - the 11th and the Fifth - which include most of the southern US had ruled against such systems.

Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, hailed the ruling as "a strong reaffirmation" of the landmark 1978 Supreme Court decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. In that case, the court said racial diversity on campus was a compelling government interest.

But plaintiffs lawyers disagree. …