A LEGAL battle over college and university admission criteria based on race that has gone up before the United States Supreme Court could have far-reaching implications on race relations in the country.
Interestingly, the case resulted from two white students who claim that the University of Michigan used admission criteria that systematically shut out white students in favour of African-Americans and other minorities with the same or lower grades and test scores.
The President entered the fray on Wednesday when he denounced direct preference for racial minorities in university admissions, stating that the administration would file a brief with the Supreme Court urging that the policy be declared unconstitutional.
It has been described as the most important affirmative action case being heard in nearly a quarter of a century.
The first case involved Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hamacher who were denied admission as undergraduates in 1995 and 1997. They claimed that according to the chart used by Michigan admission officers, African-American and Latino students with Gratz’s grades and SAT scores were guaranteed places while two out of three whites with similar qualifications were excluded.
The second case involved Barbara Grutter against Michigan’s law school.
One US district judge in Michigan upheld the undergraduate programme while another struck it out. After a series of appeals and counter appeals, the case landed before the Supreme Court.
The university has maintained that its admission process considers each applicant as an individual and factored race as only part of its effort to ensure all students received the benefits of learning in an ethnically diverse environment.
This same rationale is used by hundreds of other colleges and universities throughout the US and many say that without affirmative action, they would go back to being nearly all-white.
The high profile Supreme Court case could rekindle a wider political debate over affirmative action that became an issue in the 80s and 90s and which saw many white voters switching from Democratic to Republican ranks.
The case is potentially sensitive for the Bush administration, whose core conservative supporters oppose affirmative action but whose outreach efforts have targeted Hispanics and other minority voters.
University of Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman said there was no effective substitute for using race as one of the many factors of the admissions process. Other methods do not allow it to recruit a diverse student body while maintaining consistently high academic standards.
In choosing applicants for admission, the university relies in part on charts ranking grades and test scores but uses a separate chart for white and minority students.
The court will consider whether the university is violating Title IV of the Civil Rights Act that bars racial discrimination by federal-funded institutions or the Constitution’s 14th Amendment that guarantees equal treatment for all citizens.
In the 1978 case of Allen Bakke, the Supreme Court had a split ruling. A white applicant was denied admission to medical school at the University of California in Davis that reserved 16% of its places for minorities.
Four justices ruled that the quotas violated Title IV of the Civil Rights Act while four others stated that quotas could be constitutional if imposed to help minorities overcome discrimination. The ninth justice, the late Lewis F. Powell Jr, agreed that quotas were not permissible but said the use of race as a factor in the pursuit of diversity could be allowed.
Since then, educational institutions have interpreted the Bakke case ruling as the Supreme Court having approved some use of race and have relied on Powell’s opinion in admissions programmes that look at race as well as other factors.
In a nationally televised address, Bush said he strongly supported diversity of all kinds, including racial diversity in education.
“But the method used by the University of Michigan to achieve this important goal is fundamentally flawed. At their core, the Michigan policies amount to a quota system that unfairly rewards or penalises prospective students based solely on their race.”
According to the New York Times, by putting himself on the side of three white students who assert they were denied admission to the undergraduate and law programmes in favour of less qualified minority candidates, Bush moved to the front line of the nation’s debate about affirmative action programmes.
It said the President’s statement pleased many of his party’s conservative base and came at a time that the Republican Party had been in turmoil over racially charged statements by Senator Tent Lott of Mississippi, which may have set back the party’s efforts to increase its appeal to minority voters.
On Thursday, lawyers for the President filed a pair of briefs with the Supreme Court stating that the university's admissions programmes in both the undergraduate and law schools were actually quota systems in disguise and therefore unconstitutional.
Coleman said Bush had misunderstood the admissions programmes. “Let’s get the record straight. We do not have, nor have we ever had, quotas or numerical targets in either the undergraduate or the law school admissions. By far, the overwhelming consideration is academic qualification.”
The Congressional Black Caucus has said that it would oppose the President’s stand on the Michigan case.
Arguments before the Supreme Court are to be held in March with the decisions expected by July.
n Limit on malpractice suits
IN the United States, multimillion-dollar medical malpractice suites are common and have caused many doctors to complain that skyrocketing insurance rates are forcing them to retire, switch professions and scale back on their work.
It costs taxpayers US$28bil a year because of higher Medicare costs and insurance rates for federal workers.
Now the President has decided to act and cap the cost of medical malpractice suits to keep doctors working and insurance affordable.
Bush is proposing to limit non-economic awards, normally called “pain and suffering” awards, by juries to US$250,000 and punitive damages to a maximum of US$250,000.
The President’s move is to stop opportunistic lawyers from filing frivolous and junk law suits. “The problem of those unnecessary costs isn’t in the waiting room or in the operating room. They’re in the courtroom,” he said.
Bush’s proposal will not affect jury-awarded damages for actual financial losses such as wages and medical expenses that could run into millions.
The President’s opponents were quick to say that the move would benefit insurance companies and not reduce premiums.
But the people most upset and who would be most affected if this becomes law are trial lawyers who normally earn one-third of what the victim or the victim’s family get.
o Johan Fernandez is Editor, North America Bureau, based in New York (e-mail: email@example.com )