Bush criticizes university 'quota system'
Debate on affirmative action heats up
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Calling it "fundamentally flawed," President Bush announced Wednesday his opposition to an affirmative action program at the University of Michigan that targets minority students and said his administration will challenge it before the Supreme Court.
"I strongly support diversity of all kinds, including racial diversity in higher education," Bush said at the White House. "But the method used by the University of Michigan to achieve this important goal is fundamentally flawed."
Bush called it "a quota system" that rejects or accepts students "based solely on race."
The president said his administration would file a brief Thursday outlining its opposition to the university's affirmative action program, which helps African-American, Hispanic and Native American students. The administration is expected to file a friend-of-the court brief, but it is not a plaintiff in the matter.
"Our Constitution makes it clear that people of all races must be treated equally under the law," Bush said.
Bush's action immerses the administration in a politically and socially charged subject at a time when Republicans are trying to recover from a racially tinged firestorm in the Senate and reach out to minority voters.
'A watershed moment'
The move by the administration was closely watched on Capitol Hill by Democrats who say Republicans have failed to encourage racial diversity. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, called it "a watershed moment" for Republicans.
Former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt -- who has announced his candidacy for the White House in 2004 -- said he would file a court brief in support of the university's affirmative action program. Gephardt, D-Missouri, graduated from the University of Michigan Law School.
In the University of Michigan case, white students opposed to the program filed suits against the school. One lawsuit challenged the affirmative action program at the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, and another lawsuit challenged admissions policies using race at the law school.
The undergraduate admission process involves a point system where African-American, Hispanic and Native American applicants earn 20 points on the basis of race out of a 150-point system.
The Supreme Court's decision will be key in defining the role of affirmative action in America.
Conservatives have been arguing that it is important for the administration to take a stand against racial preferences.
Bush made clear his opposition to any such system.
"Quota systems that use race to include or exclude people from higher education and the opportunities it offers are divisive, unfair and impossible to square with the Constitution," Bush said.
But it is a politically sensitive issue for the president and Republicans who have been trying to reach out to minorities, especially in the wake of the controversy surrounding Sen. Trent Lott's comments praising Sen. Strom Thurmond's segregationist 1948 presidential bid.
Many civil rights activists also have been angered by the president's judicial nominees, most recently that of Charles Pickering, a Mississippi judge renominated to a federal appeals court. They've described Pickering as racially insensitive and questioned his commitment to civil rights.
The White House does not have to file a friend-of-the-court brief, but it is a common practice in high-profile cases.
Daschle suggested the administration's actions did not match its stated support for diversity.
"I think the burden of proof will be on the administration, I think the burden of proof will be on Republicans to show us how they can be for diversity and yet be against the laws that promulgate diversity," Daschle said. "That, I think, is a hard case to make, but I look forward to their response."
At a White House briefing, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer highlighted a program Bush spearheaded as governor of Texas.
Bush opposed racial preferences at state universities, opting instead for a program he calls "affirmative access," under which the top 10 percent of all high school students are eligible for admission.
-- White House Correspondents John King and Dana Bash, and Justice Correspondent Kelli Arena contributed to this report.