US university's race quotas challenged

2012-10-09 12:00

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Washington - The US Supreme Court is hearing arguments on Wednesday on a case that could affect how universities across the United States consider race in their admissions.

The case, one of the most high-profile of the court's agenda this year, pits Abigail Fisher, a white woman, against the University of Texas at Austin, which denied her admission.

Fisher accuses the university of discriminating against her because of her skin colour, violating her constitutional rights.

"I was taught from the time I was a little girl that any kind of discrimination was wrong," she proclaimed in an interview posted on YouTube.

Fisher was not among the top 10% of Texas high school graduates - who are all guaranteed spots at the state university and who make up the majority of students there.

But she argues she was denied admission in favour of other applicants with lower test scores and grades, who were accepted on the basis of racial preference for under-represented minorities.

Not a violation of the constitution

The plaintiff claimed in her court filing she "suffered an injury that falls squarely within the language and spirit of the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection".

She believes that the university's admission programme "favours two groups, African-Americans and Hispanics, in one of the most ethnically diverse states in the United States".

Fisher, who ultimately earned her financial analysis degree in neighbouring Louisiana, is appealing her case to the nation's highest court after failing in the lower courts.

The Supreme Court last took up this controversial issue in 2003, reaffirming a 1978 decision that affirmative action's race-based quotas did not violate the constitution.

The policy, aimed at correcting historic imbalances in education by favouring US minorities in public university admissions and other circumstances, has come under increasing scrutiny in the wake of a growing minority population.

Now - more than 60 years after the high court forced the University of Texas to enroll the first African-American ever in its law school - the school is urging the court to reconfirm that "racial diversity is a legitimate goal" in higher education, according to law professor David Cole.

Conservative court

The university is backed by more than 70 motions from universities, human rights groups and businesses - as well as by the US government - all attesting the court's decision will have a far-reaching impact.

"There's a lot at stake and plenty of reasons to be concerned," stressed Alan Morrison of The George Washington University Law School. He called the affirmative action decision "crucial", saying it would be felt at all US universities, both public and private.

But it is not clear the court will rule as it did nearly a decade ago.

Since the last ruling on affirmative action, the makeup of the high court has changed, turning it into "the most conservative in a lifetime", noted Georgetown Law professor Louis Seidman.

What's more, Elena Kagan, generally considered one of the court's more liberal judges, has recused herself, after having come down in favour of affirmative action while serving in her previous post as Solicitor General under Obama.

The Supreme Court will give its decision in 2013, after the presidential election. President Obama's challenger, Republican Mitt Romney, has said he is opposed to the quotas in public institutions.

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