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Bush outlines case against university admissions policy

Stance draws fire from Democrats, civil rights leaders

A senior administration official says Bush had many meetings before announcing his decision on the University of Michigan case.
A senior administration official says Bush had many meetings before announcing his decision on the University of Michigan case.

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CNN's Suzanne Malveaux on President Bush's announcement of his opposition to an affirmative action program at the University of Michigan (January 16)
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University of California Regents v. Bakke U.S. Supreme Court opinion From FindLaw (PDF)
Affirmative action and courts: Ambiguous rulings 
At the University of Michigan, minority undergraduate applicants to the College of Literature, Science and the Arts receive a 20-point bonus on the basis of race out of a 150-point system, which takes into consideration other criteria, including academics. Scholarship athletes, for example, get 20 points. Race is covered in a category called "other factors." The point system includes:

10 points - Michigan resident
6 points - Underrepresented Michigan county
2 points - Underrepresented state

4 points - "Legacy" (parents, step-parents)
1 point - Other (grandparents, siblings, spouses)

1 point - Outstanding essay (since 1999, 3 points)

Personal achievement
1 point - State
3 points - Regional
5 points - National

Leadership and service
1 point - State
3 points - Regional
5 points - National

20 points - Socio-economic disadvantage
20 points - Underrepresented racial-ethnic minority identification or education
5 points - Men in nursing
20 points - Scholarship athlete
20 points - Provost's discretion

Maximum of 40 points and only one option is assigned in the alumni, personal achievement, leadership & service, and miscellaneous categories.

Source: Center for Individual Rights

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Stepping into a case that could have widespread implications for affirmative action, the Bush administration is urging the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that the University of Michigan's admissions policy is unconstitutional because it favors certain racial groups.

"The University's discriminatory admissions criteria unfairly burden qualified applicants not subject to its preference by accepting favored minority candidates who have lesser objective qualifications," Solicitor General Theodore Olson wrote in twin briefs filed with the court late Thursday night.

"That policy is plainly unconstitutional under this court's precedents," Olson wrote. The Bush administration submitted two filings because there are actually two cases before the court -- one dealing with the university's law school and the other dealing with the undergraduate College of Literature, Science and Arts.

The briefs support one white student who applied to the law school and two white students who applied to the undergraduate college. The students' admissions were denied.

The administration says the law school reserves a minimum percentage of seats for preferred minorities that have been historically discriminated against -- including African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans -- a process which is "insulated from competition," according to a previous court ruling.

As for the undergraduate college, the university awards minority students 20 points on the basis of their race toward a 150-point admission system. By comparison, an outstanding essay receives one point and a perfect SAT score 12 points. Twenty points are also awarded to "scholarship athletes" and 20 go toward applicants who are included in a category called "provost's discretion."

The Bush administration says the university's admissions policy is functionally "indistinguishable from a straight quota system," which is unconstitutional.

The administration urged the court to rule in favor of "race-neutral factors," such as socio-economic status.

The University of Michigan denies its admission policy -- both at the undergraduate level and at the law school -- is based on quotas.

"The percentage varies depending upon the applicant pool," Jeffery Lehman, dean of the University of Michigan Law School, told National Public Radio.

"There's no quotas, there's no set-asides," he said of the law school. "There is probably less variation in the number of left-handed students in our class than there is the number of African-American students."

The Supreme Court has not yet scheduled arguments in the cases.

Sensitive issue in wake of Lott's remarks

A ruling in the cases is expected to be a major step in defining the role of affirmative action in the United States. Conservatives have been arguing that it is important for the administration to take a stand against racial preferences. But the Bush administration ducked the larger question of whether race could ever be considered as a factor in an admission policy.

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 former Sen. Strom Thurmond's segregationist 1948 presidential bid.

Civil rights groups also have been angered by the president's judicial nominations, including that of Charles Pickering, a Mississippi judge recently renominated to a federal appeals court. They've described Pickering as racially insensitive and questioned his commitment to civil rights.

Republicans have countered by saying Pickering is being demonized for political purposes.

A senior administration official told CNN the president went through a "thoughtful and deliberative process" over the past few weeks, and had many meetings before he announced his final decision Wednesday that taking this position was the "right" and "principled" thing to do.

Among those he spoke with to seek council were National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez, and there was "a broad, uniform consensus among the staff," the official said.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, said the filings by the Bush administration "called into question" the president's oft-stated commitment to racial diversity.

"His words about promoting educational opportunity were that -- they were words," Daschle said.

The Bush administration did not have to file its friend-of-the-court briefs, but such a move is a common practice for high-profile cases.

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