Court Nears 'High Noon' on Race-Based Admissions; Will Review the Use of Affirmative Action at universities.(PAGE ONE)

Article excerpt

Byline: Ellen Sorokin, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The Supreme Court yesterday agreed to review whether universities may consider a student's race in admission decisions, setting the stage for a ruling that could outlaw affirmative action or establish a role for race in the college entrance process.

Both supporters and opponents of affirmative action said the stakes are high because many public and private colleges, law schools and medical schools have race-conscious admissions policies.

"No matter how the majority rules, the court now can't help but make a historic decision," said Terence J. Pell, chief executive officer of the Center for Individual Rights in Washington. "The court is clearly serving notice to all interested parties that 'high noon' is fast approaching."

The Center for Individual Rights is representing white applicants to the University of Michigan's law school and its undergraduate programs who say they were unconstitutionally turned down because of their race. They say the school's slots were given to less-qualified minorities, who had lower grades and standardized test scores.

A divided 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati upheld the Michigan school's practices in May, ruling that the Constitution allows colleges and graduate schools to seek "a meaningful number" of minority students, so long as the schools avoid a fixed quota system.

It did not yet rule on a companion case addressing the school's undergraduate policy, which was argued on the same day as the law-school case. The high court is expected to decide both cases by the end of June..

University officials say they are not surprised that the court chose to hear the cases and are prepared to defend their admissions policy before the justices.

"We know that students who live and learn at racially integrated campuses are better prepared to be effective in the courthouses and companies of 21st-century America," said Jeff Lehman, the Michigan law-school dean.

"To provide the highest quality legal education to our students, we have no choice but to employ affirmative action in admissions," he said.

Reviewing the cases gives the justices a chance to decide how much weight universities may assign to an applicant's race, something it did not do when it last addressed the issue in 1978, or to completely do away with affirmative action in higher education.

"These cases represent the most significant civil rights cases the Supreme Court will have decided in the last quarter-century," said Theodore Shaw, associate director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is arguing on behalf of black and Hispanic students in the cases. …