Justices to hear affirmative-action case

FILE - This Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012 file photo shows the U.S. Supreme Court Building Washington. The court is setting an election-season review of racial preference in college admissions, agreeing Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012 to consider new limits on the contentious issue of affirmative action programs. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
FILE - This Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012 file photo shows the U.S. Supreme Court Building Washington. The court is setting an election-season review of racial preference in college admissions, agreeing Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012 to consider new limits on the contentious issue of affirmative action programs. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) (J. Scott Applewhite)

The Supreme Court, more conservative than in a 2003 ruling, will look at the use of race in college admissions.

Posted: February 22, 2012

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court set an election-season review of racial preference in college admissions, agreeing Tuesday to consider new limits on the contentious issue of affirmative-action programs.

A challenge from a white student who was denied admission to the University of Texas flagship campus will be the court's first look at affirmative action in higher education since its 2003 decision endorsing the use of race as a factor.

This time, a more conservative court could jettison the earlier ruling or at least limit when colleges may take account of race in admissions.

In a court term already filled with the subjects of health care, immigration, and legislative redistricting, the justices won't hear the affirmative-action case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, until the fall.

But the political calendar will still add drama. Arguments probably will take place in the final days of the presidential election campaign.

A broad ruling in favor of the student, Abigail Fisher, could threaten affirmative-action programs at many public and private universities, said Vanderbilt University law professor Brian Fitzpatrick.

A federal appeals court upheld the Texas program at issue, saying it was allowed under the justices' 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger that upheld racial considerations in university admissions at the University of Michigan Law School.

But the Supreme Court has changed since then. For one thing, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. appears more hostile to affirmative action than his predecessor, Sandra Day O'Connor. For another, Justice Elena Kagan, who might be expected to vote with the liberal-leaning justices in support of it, is not taking part in the Texas case.

Kagan's absence probably is a result of the Justice Department's participation in the case in the lower courts when she was the Obama administration's solicitor general.

Fisher sued along with another woman when they were denied admission to UT's Austin campus. They contended that the school's race-conscious policy violated their civil and constitutional rights. By then, both had enrolled elsewhere.

The other woman has since dropped out of the case. The state has said Fisher is a Louisiana State University senior whose impending graduation should bring an end to the lawsuit. But the Supreme Court appeared not to accept that argument Tuesday.

The Project on Fair Representation, which opposes the use of race in public policy, has helped to pay Fisher's legal bills. Its director, Edward Blum, said the case gives the court "an opportunity to clarify the boundaries of race preferences in higher education or even reconsider whether race should be permitted at all under the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection."

The project also issued a statement in Fisher's name that said, "I hope the court will decide that all future UT applicants will be allowed to compete for admission without their race or ethnicity being a factor."

Most entering freshmen at Texas are admitted because they are among the top 10 percent in their high school classes. Fisher's grades did not put her in that category.

The Texas Legislature adopted the Top Ten Percent law after a federal appeals ruling essentially barred the use of race in admissions.

But after the Grutter ruling, the university resumed considering race starting with its 2005 entering class. The policy at issue applies to the remaining spots beyond those filled by the top 10 percent and allows for the consideration of race along with other factors

Texas said its updated policy does not use quotas, which the high court has previously rejected. Instead, it said it takes a Supreme Court-endorsed broader approach to enrollment, with an eye toward increasing the diversity of the student body.

Bill Powers, president of UT Austin, said, "We must have the flexibility to consider each applicant's unique experiences and background so we can provide the best environment in which to educate and train the students who will be our nation's future leaders."


Court Rules on Inmate Rights

The Supreme Court said Tuesday that investigators don't have to read Miranda rights to inmates during jailhouse interrogations about crimes unrelated to their current incarceration.

The court, 6-3, overturned a federal appeals decision throwing out the conviction of Michigan inmate Randall Lee Fields, saying he was not in "custody" as defined by Miranda and therefore did not have to have his rights read to him.

"Imprisonment alone is not enough to create a custodial situation within the meaning of Miranda," Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the majority in Howes v. Fields.

Questioning an inmate doesn't bring the "shock" of arrest that free people experience and the coercive pressure that follows, Alito said.

Dissenting were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor, who said the ruling would limit the rights of prisoners.

Miranda rights require police to tell suspects they may remain silent and have a lawyer represent them, even if they can't afford one.

- Associated Press

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