Only two days after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear two lawsuits filed against the University’s use of race in admissions, the University has already begun preparing for oral arguments, which will take place next spring.
Assistant General Counsel Jonathan Alger said the focus of the University’s arguments will shift slightly to concentrate on the national importance of the issues being discussed.
“It’s important to note here that any decision in these cases would affect private and public universities across the country,” Alger said. “Once you get to the Supreme Court level, you’re talking about the national importance and the presidential value that applies across the board.”
The battle over the University’s race-based admissions policies began in 1997 when two white applicants, Barbara Grutter and Jennifer Gratz, sued the University claiming they were rejected from the Law School and College of Literature, Science and the Arts, respectively, while less qualified minority applicants were accepted. Last May, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Law School’s admission policies, but never ruled on the undergraduate case. In an unusual move for the Supreme Court, it accepted the undergraduate case before a judgment from the appellate court.
The Supreme Court’s decision means it will be re-examining the 1978 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case, which said race could be used just one of many factors in admissions as long as quotas were not used. Over the past 10 years, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the University of Washington’s admissions policies, which used race as a factor. But the 5th and 11th circuit courts said similar policies at the universities of Texas and Georgia are unconstitutional. Washington no longer uses race-based admissions policies, since the state passed a law making the practice illegal.
Because of the division between the lower courts and structure of the University’s case, Alger said the University has been anticipating a Supreme Court decision for five years.
“All along we’ve been prepared for this eventuality, and we’ve structured our case and our legal argument with that in mind,” he said.
But Alger said the base of the University’s argument regarding the necessity of diversity in higher education institutions will not change.
“The centerpiece of the argument is the fact that we consider diversity central to our educational mission and that it is beneficial to all students,” he said.
Three months ago, in anticipation of a Supreme Court appearance, the University hired Maureen Mahoney, a veteran Supreme Court litigator, to join its team. Alger said there are no plans to add more attorneys to the staff.
The University went before the Supreme Court in 1985 in the case Regents of the University of Michigan v. Ewing, regarding the role of academic freedom. But both University spokeswoman Julie Peterson and Alger said the University welcomes assistance from outside parties.
“It’s obviously not an everyday occurrence,” he said.
Peterson said the University has received many offers of help from other organizations, including higher education facilities. In the last few years, the Court has rejected similar cases from universities in Texas and Washington. Peterson and Alger said these universities might be interested in filing amicus briefs in support of the University.
Peterson added that other organizations have offered to write op-ed pieces in support of race-based admissions or advise behind the scenes.
“We’re receptive to the support, we appreciate it and we’re just looking to see how we can channel (it),” she said.
In addition, the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action and Integration and Fight For Equality By Any Means Necessary is making plans for a million-person march in Washington when the Court hears the cases.
Alger said the Court will not set dates for the arguments for another few weeks.