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Court adds affirmative action case

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Legal issues

• The University of Texas dispute, with arguments completed and a ruling possible soon, centers on the use of race to fill some slots in the school's freshman classes.

• The Michigan case asks whether a voter-approved ban on affirmative action in college admissions can itself violate the Constitution.

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By The Los Angeles Times
Monday, March 25, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court will hear Michigan's appeal of a surprising ruling that struck down its voters' ban on giving “preferential treatment” to students based on their race, weighing the emotionally tense issue of affirmative action for the second time in a year.

At the October argument in Fisher v. University of Texas, the court's conservative justices sounded as if they were ready to impose new limits on the use of race in college admissions. More than five months have passed without a decision, which is not unusual in the court's most contentious cases.

The Michigan measure is nearly identical to the California proposition that in 1996 abolished race-based affirmative action policies for admission to the state's colleges and universities.

But defenders of affirmative action went to federal court in Michigan and won a ruling from the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals that held the state measure unconstitutional on the grounds it took away a civil rights provision that benefited minorities.

The Supreme Court justices are highly skeptical of any use of race-based policies, and few doubted the justices would hear Michigan's defense of its ban on race-based affirmative action. The only surprise was that the justices announced they would hear the appeal before they ruled on the pending affirmative action case involving Texas.

In that case, lawyers for a rejected white student urged the court to rule that giving preferences to applicants based on their race violates the Constitution's promise of “equal protection of the laws.” A decision in that case is expected this spring.

Michigan's voters appeared to adopt the kind of race-neutral admission policies that many of the justices favor. The measure told the state universities to admit students without regard to their race or ethnicity.

The high court said it will hear the Michigan case in the fall. Justice Elena Kagan is not taking part in the case, apparently because she worked on it as solicitor general.

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