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Supreme Court Refuses To Weigh Race-Based College Admissions

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Washington

The U.S. Supreme Court refused last week to reconsider a federal appeals court ruling that limited how much race and ethnicity can be considered in college admissions.

The high court's July 1 rejection of an appeal by the state of Texas is likely to create more uncertainty among colleges and universities nationwide about the use of affirmative action, legal experts said.

The court's action in Texas v. Hopwood (Case No. 95-1773) lets stand a controversial March ruling by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. It struck down an admissions program at the University of Texas Law School that offered special consideration to African-American and Mexican-American applicants.

By a 2-1 vote, the panel said the Supreme Court's 1978 ruling in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, which held that colleges could use race among several factors in admissions decisions, was no longer good law in light of more recent high court rulings that curtailed affirmative action in government contracting. (See Education Week, March 27, 1996.)

The 5th Circuit ruling caused concern throughout higher education, and both sides of the debate over affirmative action had expected the high court to review the case.

The Supreme Court as a whole did not explain its reasons for denying the appeal.

But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a statement also signed by Justice David H. Souter, said the case contained a procedural flaw.

The immediate effect of the high court's action is to cast doubt on the affirmative action programs of educational institutions in the three states of the 5th Circuit: Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.

Higher education officials stressed that the Bakke decision remains in force outside those states and that colleges are on firm ground in maintaining their affirmative action programs.

But opponents of affirmative action said new challenges were now likely to target colleges that maintain racial preferences.

Term Ends

In separate action during the final weeks of its term, the Supreme Court:

  • Struck down two provisions but upheld one part of a 1992 federal law designed to limit the exposure of children to indecent material on cable television and public-access channels.

The court's mixed decision on June 28 in Denver Area Educational Telecommunications Consortium v. Federal Communications Commission (No. 95-124) upheld a section of the cable law that allows cable companies to refuse to air indecent material on channels leased to private concerns.

The court's plurality opinion on that section of the law suggests that Congress may be able to restrict children's access to violent and sexually graphic material if it goes about it the right way. Thus, the ruling could also hold implications for lawmakers' attempts to restrict indecent material on the Internet, legal experts said.

* Ruled in two cases that state and local governments may not dismiss private contractors for speaking out on public issues or failing to show political loyalty. The June 28 rulings came in O'Hare Truck Service v. City of Northlake (No. 95-191) and Board of County Commissioners of Waubonsee County v. Umbehr (No. 95-1654).

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