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Court's affirmative action decisions add fuel to political debate

Bush, Democrats find something to like

By Sean Loughlin
CNN Washington Bureau

In a statement, President Bush applauded the Supreme Court for recognizing
In a statement, President Bush applauded the Supreme Court for recognizing "the value of diversity."

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The U.S. Supreme Court upholds the University of Michigan's use of race as a factor in law school admissions but rules against a point system factoring race in undergraduate admissions. CNN's Bob Franken reports. (June 23)
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• Law school case majority opinion Grutter v. Bollinger  (FindLaw)external link
Law school case dissent  (FindLaw)external link
• U. of Michigan admissions case majority opinion: Gratz v. Bollinger  (FindLaw)external link
• Brief for the United States (Grutter v. Bollinger)  From FindLaw (PDF)
• Brief for the United States (Gratz v. Bollinger)  From FindLaw (PDF)external link
The Supreme Court struck down a point system used by the University of Michigan to give minorities preference in undergraduate admissions. The court, however, approved a separate program used by the University of Michigan's law school that gives race less prominence in the admissions decision-making process.

The Supreme Court said racial quotas are unconstitutional, but left room for the nation's public universities -- and by extension other public and private institutions -- to seek subtler ways to take race into account. Analysts say the rulings mean that race-conscious policies in place that do not use a quota plan such as a point system will probably remain in place.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court's divided rulings on affirmative action meant something for everyone in the political arena, virtually assuring that the hot social issue of race-based policies will remain a part of the campaign debate into next year's presidential election.

President Bush, whose administration filed a friend-of-the-court brief opposing the admissions policies at the University of Michigan, said he was happy the nation's highest court recognized the "value of diversity" even as it struck down what he called "racial quotas."

In two separate decisions, the court ruled 5-4 in favor of the university's law school admissions policies that considered race as a factor, but voted 6-3 to overturn an undergraduate admissions program that relied more explicitly on race through a point system. (Full story)

In a statement released by the White House, Bush made no mention of his administration's brief on the matter, which opposed both admissions policies at the university. That brief had enraged many civil rights activists and political opponents.

"Today's decisions seek a careful balance between the goal of campus diversity and the fundamental principle of equal treatment under the law," Bush said.

But Democrats applauded the court's affirmation that race could be considered as a factor in making decisions on admissions.

"This is a clear victory for all Americans," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, said in a statement.

Democrats also used the decision to highlight their belief that the Supreme Court could -- and should be -- a significant issue in the 2004 election.

The 5-4 decision upholding the consideration of race "underscores the importance of nominating and confirming justices committed to upholding civil rights," Sen. John Edwards, D-North Carolina, said in a statement. Edwards is one of nine Democrats seeking his party's presidential nomination.

Many of the Democratic White House hopefuls -- as well as Republicans voicing support for Bush -- have cited the president's nominating powers for federal judges as something voters should consider next year.

The split decisions over affirmative action allowed both sides in the political debate to claim victory. In their respective statements, the White House and congressional Democrats focused on aspects of the two decisions that bolstered their point of view.

For the president, the key aspect of the decisions was the ruling that struck down the point system in the undergraduate program.

"The court has made clear that colleges and universities must engaged in a serious, good faith consideration of workable race-neutral alternatives," Bush said, though the court did not categorically rule out race as a factor in admissions' decisions.

Democrats chose to emphasize the court's decision that focused on admissions at the university's law school, where race was a factor, but not as prominent as that cited in the undergraduate point system.

"The court reaffirmed the compelling interest in racial and ethnic diversity in higher education," Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, said before a gathering of civil rights' lawyers. "All of us here know the vast importance of affirmative action and its essential role in achieving genuinely equal opportunity for all in our society."

In his statement, Bush vowed to continue working toward the "important goal" of a "color-blind society."

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