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Affirmative action battle far from over

Since this story was published on Friday, June 1, 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court backed the use of race in college admissions but struck down the use of a "point" system at the University of Michigan's undergraduate school. Tribes hailed the ruling as a positive step.

Several tribes and other Indian interests had submitted briefs in the case. The tribal brief, which supported a treaty-based right to Indian education, garnered a mention during oral arguments but didn't figure much in the court's final decision.

Despite the decision, some groups say Indian preferences are illegal. Several schools are being pressured to abolish an Indian teacher program.

Officials at the University of Michigan on Thursday welcomed the support of over 80 educational, civil rights and industry groups who have filed legal briefs in support of the school's heavily contested affirmative action policies.

General Motors, Coca-Cola, 3M and Microsoft are among the 33 large corporations who have sided with the school's law and undergraduate admissions policies. A number of educational and civil rights organizations have also joined the case, which has drawn the support of Michigan lawmakers and officials.

"I am deeply gratified at this stunning array of support for our position," said president Lee C. Bollinger.

The school's policies are just one of a number in question as legal opponents have been able to strike down similar practices at higher educational institutions throughout the nation. A conservative group called the Center for Individual Rights has succeeded in ending affirmative action policies at schools in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, where a judge agreed they were unconstitutional and racially unfair.

The Washington, DC-based group has some high-profile backers. Confirmed Solicitor General nominee Theodore B. Olson volunteered to argue and won that 1996 case in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

But there is a mixed record elsewhere. While the Center scored a victory when a federal judge in Detroit struck down U-M's law admissions practices in March, they lost when another judge upheld the school's undergraduate policies last December.

The group also asked the Supreme Court to review a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision which upheld affirmative action at University of Washington School of Law. But the Court declined to hear the case on Tuesday, a challenge brought on behalf of three white students by the Center.

Yet the conflict among all the decisions means the issue is not entirely settled. U-M is banking on the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals to affirm its policies: when Judge Bernard Friedman ordered the school change its law admissions, the appeals court temporarily reversed it, citing "irreparable harms" to the school and its entering 2001-2002 class.

But even if the court sides with the school, the Supreme Court may step in and resolve the issue due to the 5th Circuit case. While the Court has considered affirmative action affecting government programs, it hasn't ruled on educational practices since the 1978 Bakke case.

Then, a 5-4 Court said the use of quotas were unfair. Schools have taken the ruling as allowing them to use race as an additional factor in considering students worthy of admission.

About 28 percent of the year 2000 entering class at University of Michigan's law school are members of ethnic or racial minorities. Six students, or 2 percent, are Native American.

The 6th Circuit will hear the school's cases in late October of early November.

Related Decisions:
Grutter v. U-M (Judge strikes down law admissions. March 27, 2000)
Gratz v. U-M (Judge upholds undergraduate admissions. December 13, 2000)
Hopwood v. Texas et al. (5th Circuit decision against affirmative action. December 21, 2000)
Smith v. U Wash Law School (9th Circuit upholds law admissions. December 4, 2000)

Relevant Links:
University of Michigan, Affirmative action site -
The Center for Individual Rights -