When the lawsuit against the Law School is argued April 1 before the U.S. Supreme Court, the key debate is expected to be whether the school’s admissions policy is a legal step toward diversity or an unconstitutional racial quota.
Like the case questioning the admissions policy of the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, the lawsuit against the Law School challenges the use of race as an admissions factor. But unlike LSA, the Law School does not assign specific point values to minority applicants.
Instead, the policy seeks to create a diverse environment by giving special weight to applicants with unique talents or experiences, including “students from groups which have been historically discriminated against,” like blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans.
Former University President Lee Bollinger said all law students benefit from racially diverse classrooms because minorities bring unique perspectives to discussions about issues such as restricting hate speech.
“It tends to be a different, more comprehensive discussion when you have a diverse class,” Bollinger said.
The policy’s commitment to racial diversity has created what is labeled a “critical mass” of minorities in the Law School. Law School Dean Jeffrey Lehman said by admitting a substantial number of minorities, the policy has helped to create an environment that highlights diversity within groups as well as across society.
“The value of having a racially diverse class exists in part because when you have more than token numbers of members of racial minorities in the class, other people recognize that such people are not spokespeople for their (race or ethnic group),” Lehman said.
In addition to creating a diverse environment which all students benefit from, Bollinger said the Law School’s policy ensures that minorities enrolled in the school do not feel isolated.
“If it is true that race matters in American society and integration is difficult to achieve … if the numbers are below a critical mass, then minorities may not feel comfortable speaking out.”
But Curt Levey, spokesman for the Center for Individual Rights, a Washington-based law firm representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuits, said the creation of a critical mass indicates that the Law School is using a type of racial quota.
He said the Law School’s minority enrollment in recent years has remained steady, ranging from 13.5 to 13.7 percent of the student body. This statistic includes only blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans, the only minorities to receive special consideration.
“A critical mass is just a quota expressed as a range,” Levey said. “Who are they kidding when they say there is no quota?”
While permitting the use of race as an admissions factor, the Supreme Court banned the use of racial quotas in its last ruling on race-conscious admissions policies in 1978, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke.
Lehman said, instead of using racial quotas, which reserve a number of seats for minorities who are insulated from competing with white applicants, the Law School policy stipulates that admissions officers review candidates’ academic merit thoroughly to ensure that every student admitted will be able to succeed in the school.
“By applying the kind of sensible, whole-person review … we have been able to have a critical mass,” Lehman said. “It’s just another way of explaining the value of the admission policy.”
Looking beyond candidates’ racial backgrounds is vital for the Law School policy, University of Virginia law Prof. Kim Forde-Mazrui said, because the Supreme Court will not approve of it unless the justices decide race is one of many factors considered during the examination process.
“If it looks like the main goal is racial diversity … the Court’s not going to like that,” he said. “They really want race to be a mild factor.”
Forde-Mazrui said even though the Law School policy does not assign specific points for minority status, the Court will look over the overall admissions approach to determine whether the policy still gives great weight to an applicant’s minority status.
Levey said even if the Court accepts the University’s use of race as an admissions factor, CIR will argue that the Law School policy places too much weight on an applicant’s racial background.
The Law School’s use of race as an admissions factor must be viewed within the context of the goal to create a diverse academic environment, Bollinger said.
“You can only think about (the weight given to race) in relation to your goals and values,” Bollinger said. “Within this judgment, taking into account race as much as the University does is not too much. It’s just right.”