A federal appeals court Thursday put on hold a judge's order that the University of Michigan law school stop using race as a factor in admissions.
A three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit of Appeals said the order is disrupting the selection of the incoming law school class.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman struck down the law school's 9-year-old affirmative action policy, and then denied a request from Michigan to stay his order while the university appeals.
Hundreds of offers of admission have already been made for the 2001-02 academic year, and several thousand applications are still pending.
"We have believed all along that our policy is constitutional and today's decision puts us back to where we were a week ago able to pursue our goal of an outstanding and diverse student body," said Liz Barry, university deputy general counsel. "Today's decision acknowledges that Judge Friedman's decision was inconsistent with the decisions of other courts."
In his ruling, Friedman wrote: "There is no question about the long and tragic history of race discrimination in this country."
However, he added that the law school's justification for using race to assemble a racially diverse student population is not a compelling state interest. Even if it was in the state interest, the law school has not narrowly tailored its use of race to achieve that interest, the judge said.
"We think the injunction should have been left in place," said Kirk Colbo, an attorney with the Center for Individual Rights, which brought the lawsuit on behalf of a white student, Barbara Grutter. "We look forward to arguing the merits of the case before the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals."
Grutter claimed she was denied admission in 1997 in favor of less-qualified minorities.
The appeals court has not set a date for hearing the case.
At the end of last year, another federal judge ruled the university's undergraduate admissions policy, which also takes race into account, is constitutional. The undergraduate case is also likely to be brought to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Both suits could wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Washington-based Center for Individual Rights, a conservative legal group, brought down affirmative action at the University of Texas law school in 1996. The Texas school, like Michigan, argued that race-conscious admissions foster diversity. But the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled that while schools can consider an applicant's economic and social background, race cannot be taken into account.
The Supreme Court chose not to hear the Texas case, because the school had already decided to end affirmative action.
Grutter claimed the Michigan school's admission policies are unconstitutiona. As a white applicant, she said the law school discriminated against her while accepting minority students with lower test scores and grade-point averages.
University attorney John Payton has said the law school has one set of standards and a policy that is compliant with California's Bakke case of 1978, in which the U.S. Supreme Court allowed consideration of race in university admissions but outlawed racial quotas.
In December, U.S. District Judge Patrick Duggan affirmed Michigan's undergraduate admissions standards in place since 1999 on the grounds that they are a constitutional way to achieve diversity.
In a 1997 lawsuit filed on behalf of two white students denied admission to the school, the CIR argued that the school's use of race was discriminatory.
In his ruling late last year, Duggan declared as unconstitutional the school's earlier, grid-based admissions policy from 1995 through 1998, concluding that it represented an impermissible, quota-like use of race in "reserving" spots for underrepresented minorities.
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