Court Takes Up Racial Preferences in Landmark Case ; Debate Tuesday on Affirmative Action in College Admissions Will Have Big Impact

Article excerpt

When she applied to attend the University of Michigan Law School, Barbara Grutter was anything but a typical applicant.

As a mother of two in her 40s running her own healthcare consulting business, she had considerably more life experience than the average 22-year-old. In addition, there was a respectable 3.8 undergraduate grade-point average and a score of 161 on the law- school aptitude test, placing her in the 86th percentile nationally.

But unknown to Ms. Grutter, she possessed one trait that would significantly undercut her candidacy: the color of her skin.

As one of the most selective law schools in the nation, the University of Michigan maintains an affirmative-action plan that seeks to grant admission each year to a "critical mass" of qualified minority students. To reach that critical mass, the university must reject a large number of white students, like Grutter, even though they have higher grades and test scores than many of the minorities selected to attend.

Tuesday, the US Supreme Court takes up one of the most important constitutional law debates of this generation. The justices must decide whether the nation's most prestigious and selective universities may use race as a deciding factor in whom to admit and whom to reject.

Regardless of which side wins, the court's decision will have a profound impact on efforts to remedy the long legacy of discrimination against African-Americans and other minorities in the US. "The stakes couldn't be higher," says Theodore Shaw of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York.

Three key questions

The legal debate over affirmative action revolves around three key questions: Does the Constitution demand a colorblind approach in all matters of race? Or, is the constitutional guarantee of equal protection flexible enough to permit the use of race in an effort to uplift a particular segment of society? If so, at what point do preferences cross the line and become illegal discrimination?

The justices are believed to be as deeply divided on these questions as the nation itself. The outcome may hinge on the perspective of a single, tie-breaking justice, Sandra Day O'Connor.

Scores of friend-of-the-court briefs have been filed on both sides, presenting a wide range of passionate arguments. "If traditionally white institutions of higher education are not allowed the flexibility to look beyond narrow quantitative measures of college readiness and consider race, much of the progress of African Americans in higher education will be lost," says Drew Days III, in a brief on behalf of the United Negro College Fund.

Ward Connerly, a nationally recognized opponent of affirmative action, offers a different view: "Was it the purpose of the 'civil rights' movement to end the morally abhorrent practice of discriminating AGAINST black people so that we could discriminate in FAVOR of them?"

In agreeing to decide the issue, the high court is actually hearing two cases back to back. First will be Grutter's case against the law school. Next, the justices will hear arguments in a similar case filed by two white undergraduate University of Michigan applicants. …