Austin, TX — In a decision that could dismantle 20 years of affirmative action, a federal appeals court has ruled that the University of Texas should not have given preferred treatment to minorities admitted to its School of Law.
If it stands, the ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans could force colleges and universities across the country to discard similar policies used to boost their minority enrollments.
The appeals court’s 81-page opinion was cheered by supporters as a victory for color-blind admissions.
The case, Hopwood vs. Texas, stems from a 1992 lawsuit filed by four white students who contended that they were denied admission to UT’s law school because of the university’s policy favoring the admission of students of color over whites.
The law school’s admission policy, based on grade-point averages and standardized test scores. used different criterion for students of color and whites. White students generally needed higher grades and test scores to gain admission.
During a 1994 trial in Austin, law school deans from California, Michigan. Minnesota, and North Carolina testified that their admissions policies were similar to the University of Texas’.
Afterward, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks of Austin ruled that the four applicants’ constitutional rights had been violated, but also decided that affirmative action could continue to remedy past discrimination.
He awarded each of the four students $1 in damages and the right to reapply to the law school.
But the New Orleans appeals court said that Texas “presented no compelling justification … that allows it to continue to elevate some races over others, even for the wholesome purpose of correcting perceived racial imbalance.”
The ruling, written by Circuit Judge Jerry Smith, notes that such policies can be used only under narrow circumstances, such as ongoing discrimination by a governmental entity.
Smith cited the Allen Bakke case in his ruling. When Bakke, a white medical student, was denied admission to the University of California at Davis, he sued the school for reverse discrimination. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court.
The nation’s highest court said in that 1978 case, Regents of the University of California vs Bakke, that a public university’s strict racial quotas flouted civil rights laws. But it said some preferential treatment could be allowed to promote diversity.
William Cunningham, chancellor of the University of Texas System, said he was “saddened” by the court’s decision “that Bakke is no longer the law of the land.” He said he will seek an appeal.
UT President Dr. Robert Berdahl said that the ruling “has serious implications for Texas, including the virtual resegregation of higher education.”
In the wake of the ruling, University of Texas officials suspended admissions at the law school and the UT system’s 15 campuses but said admissions made so far will stand.
University officials said they need time to study the ruling and hope to resume admissions soon.
Austin lawyer Steven Smith, who represented two of the white students who sued, said the decision “spells the beginning of the end for race-based measures employed by institutions of higher education.”
Of the four plaintiffs, only one — Douglas Carvell of Dallas — enrolled in another law school. He is set to graduate from Southern Methodist University in May with a law degree and a master’s degree in business administration.
Another plaintiff, David Rogers of Fort Worth, called the court’s ruling “a great step forward — a giant step toward color-blind admissions, which I think is what the Constitution requires and what the people expect.”
The two other plaintiffs are Ken Elliott of Austin and Sheryl Hopwood of Columbia, MD. Although the case bears Hopwood’s name, she never returned to law school. She is currently a mother and the wife of a career military man.
RELATED ARTICLE: Ruling Causes Consternation
A recent federal appeals court ruling declaring the University of Texas’ law school admission formula unconstitutional could, if affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, push law school further from the reach of minorities, according to scholars.
The case, which likely will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, could be the one “that decides whether affirmative action will live or die,” says Frank Askin, a general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
If upheld by the high court, “It’s going to make it incredibly hard for African Americans to get into public law schools,” said Percy Luney, dean of the North Carolina Central University Law School.
“The public law school is where tuition is lower. This could have a big financial impact on minority students,” Luney said, noting that North Carolina, California, Michigan and Minnesota’s law school admissions policies are similar to the Texas approach.
Although the NCCU law school admission policies don’t separate applicants into different categories for different treatment by race, the ruling could have a chilling effect on the drive to achieve diversity in law schools, he said.
“If we’re going to have pure admissions standards, we have to be able to reject those people who have that special influence,” he said.
“If the (Supreme Court) affirms this, the question is what impact it would have on the number of African American and Hispanic law students. It may push a lot of them out of the top-tier law schools,” he said.
The ruling also triggered concerns about the increasingly chilly climate for affirmative action in the nation’s courts, according to Ted Shaw, deputy counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Shaw said he finds the ruling “a deeply troubling opinion. It means that in the 5th Circuit, race cannot be taken into account in law school admissions.”
At a practical level, it can only mean a decline in the already small numbers of Blacks at the Austin School of Law, he said.
The ruling comes less than two months before the centennial anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling that established the doctrine of “separate, but equal” as the criterion for measuring equitable treatment of minorities.
Plessy vs. Ferguson established that integration of public facilities was not necessary as long as separate, but equal, facilities existed for both whites and Blacks, was issued in May, 1896.
“The irony is that in 1996 we’re having the same kind of struggles that happened in 1896,” Shaw said.
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