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Affirmative action and ambiguity in the law

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(CNN) -- The goal of affirmative action is to correct discrimination rooted in slavery and segregation.

Many believe it has been successful in righting past wrongs and bringing progress for minorities. But in 1973 a white student, Alan Bakke, sued after he was denied admission to medical school at the University of California at Davis, saying minorities less qualitifed than him were admitted. In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled the university could not hold a quota of places for minorities.

Yet in the words of the late Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell: "The goal of achieving a diverse student body is sufficiently compelling to justify consideration of race ... under some circumstances."

Powell cast the final vote in the Bakke case, and wrote that quotas were impermissible, but also said the use of race as a "plus factor" in the pursuit of racial diversity may be allowed.

Each side in the University of Michigan debate, however, believes Powell's opinion buttresses its argument.

University of Michigan officials say the Bakke ruling makes it vital for school officials to think in terms of racial diversity.

Opponents have said Powell's opinion calls the effort to achieve a certain racial mix discriminatory and unconstitutional.

Since the Bakke ruling, affirmative action has been limited in some cases. A federal court ruled that the University of Texas could not use it to achieve diversity at its law school and a California ballot measure halted affirmative action statewide.

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