WASHINGTON – The most important affirmative action case in a generation went before the Supreme Court yesterday, giving lawyers on both sides their last chance to sway undecided justices.

Thousands of vocal supporters surrounded the court’s perimeter, holding signs, beating drums and voicing their concern for preserving integration in education.

The hundreds of spectators who crowded into the historic courtroom, which is no bigger than a medium-sized lecture hall, were insulated from the protests. They watched the nine Supreme Court justices fire a barrage of questions at attorneys representing the University and the rejected applicants who sued it.

Instead of providing each side with the opportunity to reiterate its basic legal arguments, the justices instead targeted specific details of the cases. They asked fast-paced questions challenging the importance of diversity in society and education, the University’s goal of enrolling a critical mass of minorities through race-conscious admissions policies and the validity of race-blind alternative programs.

Attorneys from the Center for Individual Rights – the law firm representing the plaintiffs – argued that minorities meeting certain minimal qualifications are automatically accepted into the College of Literature, Science and the Arts.

“These systems featured separate admissions guidelines for different races, protected or reserved seats in the class for select minorities,” CIR lead attorney Kirk Kolbo said.

Some of the justices appeared to accept Kolbo’s arguments. Justice Anthony Kennedy, considered a key moderate vote on the bench, joined Justice Antonin Scalia in saying that he thinks that the LSA may be operating a quota.

Kennedy posed questions about the importance of diversity in public institutions and whether schools should be permitted to use race as an admissions factor to achieve diversity. He asked Kolbo whether states should be concerned if law schools only enroll 2 to 3 percent minorities, and if the majority of future lawyers are white.

“It’s a broad social and political concern that there are not adequate members of the profession which is designed to protect our rights and to promote progress. I should think that’s a very legitimate concern,” he said.

Despite the brevity of the proceedings and the targeted inquiries, both sides said their lawyers responded well and voiced optimism that the justices will rule in their favor.

“I think it went well,” University President Mary Sue Coleman said. “The court was prepared … I think they asked the right questions.”

Former University President Lee Bollinger, the lead defendant in both lawsuits, said the justices asked questions attempting to examine new aspects of the cases.

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