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Court Rejects Race-Based Admissions at Law School

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A federal appeals court last week struck down the use of racial preferences in admissions at the University of Texas law school, saying that government affirmative-action programs are not justified for the purpose of promoting racial diversity.

The decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit added new fuel to the nationwide debate over affirmative action and raised fears throughout higher education that minority preferences in admissions are in jeopardy.

"This will lead to the end of most programs [in higher education] with these types of ratios," said Theodore B. Olson, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs who challenged the admissions preferences.

The ruling was "a victory for equal rights for all and special preferences for none," said Gov. Pete Wilson of California, who last year successfully lobbied his state university system's board of regents to ban racial and gender preferences in admissions.

Robert H. Atwell, the president of the Washington-based American Council on Education, an umbrella group representing higher education, emphasized that the ruling was limited to the states included in the Fifth Circuit--Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Higher education remains committed to affirmative action, he said.

"Inclusionary efforts and the promotion of diversity are indispensable if the nation's colleges and universities are to serve their core missions," he said.

Special Preferences

In Hopwood v. Texas, four white applicants who were rejected for admission to the University of Texas law school in Austin challenged the school's special preferences for African-Americans and Mexican-Americans. Other Hispanics and members of other minority groups did not receive special consideration.

Although the judges unanimously struck down the law school's admissions program as a violation of the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection, only two held that diversity was an inappropriate goal for affirmative action.

"Diversity fosters, rather than minimizes, the use of race," said the March 18 opinion by U.S. Circuit Judge Jerry E. Smith. "It treats minorities as a group, rather than as individuals."

The panel said that affirmative action to remedy past discrimination remains valid.

But the law school's program could not be justified on such grounds because the school long ago eliminated the vestiges of past discrimination against black students and was never found to discriminate against Mexican-Americans, the judges ruled.

In a concurrence, U.S. Circuit Judge Jacques L. Weiner Jr. said the majority was wrongly casting aside the U.S. Supreme Court's 1978 ruling in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, which said that universities could consider race among several factors in admissions.

University of Texas officials last week temporarily suspended all admissions and were considering whether to seek a rehearing before the full 5th Circuit court or an appeal to the Supreme Court.

Though the ruling created widespread uncertainty among admissions officials, it does not directly require other universities to alter their affirmative-action programs.

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