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Officials Mull the Impact Of Prop 209 Legal Battle On College Admissions

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High school seniors applying to California's public colleges for next fall are waiting to find out if race and gender will be factors in admissions and financial-aid decisions.

Californians voted to end race and gender preferences in the state's affirmative action programs when they passed Proposition 209 on Nov. 5. ("Anti-Preference Measure Sparks Competing Suits," Nov. 13, 1996.)

But a federal judge in San Francisco issued a 20-day restraining order blocking the measure on Nov. 27, saying that the new law could be unconstitutional. A Dec. 16 hearing is set to consider a preliminary injunction against the constitutional amendment.

With college-application deadlines approaching across the Golden State, higher education officials are mulling the impact the legal battle could have on admissions policy.

The issue is most acute for the selective, nine-campus University of California system, whose board of regents had earlier voted to end race, gender, and ethnicity as factors in admissions beginning the fall of 1998. That date was moved up to the fall of 1997 after Proposition 209 passed. Right now, the change of date is on hold.

"We are waiting for some clarification from the courts," Terry Lightfoot, a spokesman for the university, said last week.

In a new development in the case, civil rights activists opposed to Proposition 209 have asked Chief Judge Thelton E. Henderson to add the University of California to their lawsuit to block Proposition 209 when he revisits the case next week.

'Time To Adjust'

If the judge grants the injunction Dec. 16, then the new University of California admissions policy would be moved back to the 1998 date, officials said.

Proposition 209 would have far less impact on admissions to the less selective California State University system and California's community colleges, officials said, though some financial-aid programs are under review.

Fall applications to the University of California are due Dec. 12. Most reviews begin next month.

"We have more than enough time to adjust to any court decision," Mr. Lightfoot said.

The judge's temporary restraining order, meanwhile, drew strong reactions on both sides of the issue.

Gov. Pete Wilson, an enthusiastic backer of the ballot measure, called the ruling "an affront to the majority of California voters who passed Proposition 209." The Republican governor added, "I am confident that the will of the voters will ultimately prevail."

Proposition 209 foes said that the strongly worded court order boded well for an eventual ruling in their favor.

In granting the order, the judge said there was a "strong probability" that the ballot measure violated the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equal protection of the laws.

Said Edward Chen, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union in Northern California: "It certainly sends the signal that the legal theory of our case is a strong one."

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