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US Supreme Court ducks major ruling on affirmative action

US-Supreme Court

WASHINGTON--The U.S. Supreme Court avoided a major ruling on affirmative action in college student admissions on Monday, but warned that university policies that take race into account could be more vulnerable to legal challenges in the future.

In a lopsided 7-1 vote that few expected, the justices sent a case about the policy at the University of Texas at Austin back to a lower court for reconsideration. That means Abigail Fisher, a white woman from suburban Houston, will have a second chance to argue that she was wrongly rejected entry to the university while minority students with similar grades and test scores were admitted thanks to the admissions policy.

To the relief of affirmative action supporters, the high court left intact existing court precedent that allows for limited consideration of race in university admissions. Elaborating on how its previous rulings should be interpreted, the Supreme Court ruled that when an appeals court rehears the case, it must show less deference to the university when analyzing whether the policy violated the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection. That means the University of Texas program still hangs in the balance.

Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University and a leading affirmative action supporter, said the ruling would likely further embolden opponents of such programs. "People who are opposed to this are very determined," he said. "I would fully anticipate challenges continuing."

The justices' tussle with this divisive issue reflects a political debate that has been ongoing since President John Kennedy's administration of the early 1960s over the sort of "affirmative action" to be taken to help blacks and other minorities. The Supreme Court has been at the center of disputes over when universities may consider applicants' race since 1978, when it forbade quotas in its groundbreaking Bakke case decision but said schools could weigh race with other factors.

Many court-watchers, basing their predictions on October's oral arguments and the court's more conservative makeup since the last big decision on the matter in 2003, had thought the Texas program was doomed and the court might cut back on the use of affirmative action - admissions preferences that benefit minorities to diversify student enrollment - in broader terms. In an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court sent a warning to affirmative action advocates that they will need ironclad legal arguments to justify such programs in the future if they are to survive legal challenges.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which upheld the program the first time it considered it, must now scrutinize the policy even more closely, including consideration of whether the university could have used a race-neutral alternative, Kennedy said. The university "must make a showing that its plan is narrowly tailored to achieve the only interest that this court has approved in this context," Kennedy wrote.

Under court precedent, that would mean a program that takes into account a broad array of qualifications and characteristics "of which racial or ethnic origin is but a single though important element."