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Dealing another setback to affirmative action, a federal judge ruled Tuesday that the use of race in admissions at the University of Michigan law school is unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman, in a case closely watched by educators across the country, acknowledged there is a “long and tragic history of race discrimination in this country.” But he said the law school’s goal of achieving a racially diverse student body is not a compelling state interest — and even if it were, the school has not narrowly tailored its use of race to achieve the goal. “Whatever solution the law school elects to pursue it must be race-neutral,” the judge said. “The focus must be upon the merit of individual applicants, not upon characteristics of racial groups.” The ruling conflicts with another federal judge’s decision upholding a similar admissions policy used for University of Michigan undergraduates. The two cases could ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. The university said it will appeal Friedman’s ruling immediately. “His ruling overturns over 20 years of settled law and the practices of virtually every selective college and university in the country,” said Elizabeth Berry, associate vice president and deputy general counsel for the university. “But we are confident that we will prevail because of the overwhelming evidence that diversity is critical to education.” The ruling was praised by the Center for Individual Rights, the conservative legal group that brought both Michigan lawsuits. Given the millions of dollars spent by the university to defend its position, the ruling is “a huge shot across the bow for the entire higher education community,” said Terence Pell, the organization’s chief executive. Affirmative action has been abandoned by universities in Florida, Texas and California, and the use of race and gender in awarding public contracts has also come under strong legal attack around the country. The Michigan law school case was brought on behalf of Barbara Grutter, who said she was unfairly denied admission in 1997 because minorities with lower grades and test scores got preferential treatment. The law school adopted its affirmative action policy in 1992. It relies first on an applicant’s grades and exam scores. But it also gives consideration to applicants who have lower scores but “may help achieve that diversity which has the potential to enrich everyone’s education.” Of the 367 students in the most recent entering class at the law school, 12 percent did not report their race or ethnicity, while 10 percent identified themselves as black and 4 percent as Hispanic. The university argued that the law school’s policies comply with the Supreme Court’s 1978 decision in the Bakke case, which allowed consideration of race in admissions but outlawed racial quotas. Miranda Massie, an attorney for a group of students who intervened on the university’s side, said Friedman’s ruling will intensify racial inequalities. “We don’t need any institutions in this society to be reserved for white people alone,” she said. “If this decision is sustained, that would be its impact.” In the undergraduate admissions case, U.S. District Judge Patrick Duggan affirmed the University of Michigan’s standards in December, saying they are a constitutional way to achieve diversity. That case was brought on behalf of two whites denied admission. It was the Center for Individual Rights that brought down affirmative action at the University of Texas law school in 1996. The Texas school, like Michigan, argued that race-conscious admissions foster diversity. But the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that schools cannot take race into account. The Supreme Court chose not to hear the Texas case because the school had already decided to end affirmative action. In December, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco, ruled that the University of Washington Law School acted legally when it considered race in its now-abandoned admissions policy. The Michigan cases appear ultimately headed to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. If federal appeals courts come to conflicting conclusions, the Supreme Court may feel compelled to sort it all out. Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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