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Justices rip role of race in admissions

| Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, 6:35 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Conservative Supreme Court justices took aim at affirmative action on Wednesday in a politically charged case that will likely determine what role race can play in college admissions and other public policies.

The pointed questions during an unusually long oral argument presaged a close call, and possible problems ahead, for the racial preferences sometimes granted to applicants to the University of Texas and other schools. Almost certainly, this most highly anticipated case of the court's 2012 term will come down to a single swing vote.

“There has to be a logical endpoint to your use of race (in admissions),” Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. told the university's attorney. “When is that endpoint?” Joined by several of his fellow Republican appointees, Roberts pressed repeatedly for details on the university's stated goal of enrolling a “critical mass” of minority students.

Justice Samuel Alito said flatly that he didn't understand what the university meant, and Justice Antonin Scalia voiced repeated skepticism about what he termed “a very ambitious racial program” that tilts the decision among otherwise equal candidates.

“What does the racial preference mean if it doesn't mean that in that situation the minority applicant wins and the other applicant loses?” Scalia asked rhetorically.

Attorney Gregory S. Garre, representing the university, responded that race is “only one modest factor among many” considered in admissions decisions, and that diversity “serves an interest that is indisputably compelling.”

Andrea Noel Fisher, a white graduate of Foster High School in Sugar Land, Texas, challenged the state university's admissions policy after she was rejected by the school in 2008. The University of Texas guarantees admission to students in the top 10 percent of their high school classes, but Fisher's 3.59 GPA was not enough to make the grade.

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