WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court said on Tuesday it would decide whether a state university may consider an applicant's race to achieve a more diverse student body, revisiting in an election year a divisive social issue it last addressed nine years ago.
Adding to blockbuster cases on President Barack Obama's healthcare law and on Arizona's immigration crackdown, the high court agreed to hear an appeal by a white female applicant who was denied undergraduate admission in 2008 to the University of Texas at Austin.
Abigail Fisher challenged the university admissions policies for discriminating against her on the basis of race in violation of her constitutional rights and the federal civil rights laws, putting the court at the center of the debate over such programs in higher education.
Her attorney urged the Supreme Court to reconsider its last ruling on the issue in 2003, when it reaffirmed that a diverse student population can justify use of race as one factor to help minorities gain admission to public universities and colleges.
Since 2003, the court, with the addition of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, appointees of President George W. Bush, has become more conservative and more skeptical of racial preferences in education.
The Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in the case in its upcoming term that begins in October, with a ruling likely early next year. It will be one of the highest profile cases of the 2012-13 term.
The court is likely to hear arguments in the case around the same time as the presidential, congressional and other U.S. elections in November.
Obama, the first black U.S. president, and his top officials have supported allowing educators to consider the race of students in certain plans designed to promote diversity.
The high court will consider the case with eight of its nine members, as Justice Elena Kagan did not take part in considering the appeal. She gave no reason for her recusal, but she has taken herself out of cases when she worked on the issue in her prior job as solicitor general in the Obama administration.
A federal judge and a U.S. appeals court upheld the admissions policies the University of Texas adopted in 2005. The Supreme Court agreed to review the appeals court ruling.
RACE CONSIDERED WITH OTHER FACTORS
Texas provides admission for those in the top 10 percent of the state high schools. Fisher did not qualify and was put into a pool of applicants where race is considered along with other factors such as test scores, community service, leadership qualities and work experience.
She was competing for less than 20 percent of admission slots that remained. Fisher and another white female student denied admission sued, but the other applicant has already graduated from another college and has dropped out of the case.
Fisher said in the lawsuit that her academic credentials exceeded those of many minority students, but that she lost out because of a coding system in which race is used as a factor in admissions decisions to increase classroom diversity.
In a statement, Fisher said she was grateful her case would be heard, adding, "I hope the court will decide that all future UT (University of Texas) applicants will be allowed to compete for admission without their race or ethnicity being a factor."
In Austin, university president William Powers said in a statement the institution "will vigorously seek a decision" reaffirming the educational benefits of diversity and its narrowly tailored admissions policy.
On the university website, he said the student body was diverse, with African American, Hispanic and Asian American students making up more than 35 percent of the enrollment.
Opponents of using race in admissions applauded the court's decision. "The court is right to take the case because the justices must keep an eye on what schools are doing," said Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity.
Supporters, such as Brenda Shum, the senior counsel for the Educational Opportunities Project at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, expressed confidence the policy would be upheld.
"This case provides a platform for a newly configured U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider the constitutionality of race-conscious admissions in higher education," she said. "We remain confident that the court will reaffirm that colleges and universities may pursue the educational benefits of diversity."
Vanderbilt University law professor Brian Fitzpatrick said the court possibly could use the case to overturn its 2003 ruling. "It is also possible the court will narrowly focus on the unique circumstances of the University of Texas," he said.
Columbia University law professor Ted Shaw, who previously worked at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said the court decision was "potentially troubling news for colleges, universities and those who support efforts to diversity institutions of higher education."
The Supreme Court case is Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, No. 11-345.
(Reporting By James Vicini; Editing by Christopher Wilson)