U.S. Circuit Court judgment on using race in admissions raises inquiries
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - A ruling by a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court Friday declared an admissions policy using race as a factor unconstitutional, sparking yet another round of legal wrangling among University of Virginia leaders.
The decision declared an Arlington County, Va., kindergarten magnet school's lottery system that gives preference to black and Hispanic applicants unconstitutional.
Board of Visitors member Terence P. Ross said according to the university's legal counsel, using race in granting admissions is no longer defensible in court.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court's judgment has direct bearing over the university's admissions policies, Ross said.
Ross heads a special Board committee charged with analyzing whether the university's admissions policies are legally sound.
The committee and the university's legal counsel were prepared for the court's decision and had anticipated the ruling, Ross said.
"Everybody knew this was going to govern the admissions policies at colleges and universities in the Commonwealth and we have to comply with it," he said. "It is as if our lawyers had an advance copy of the decision. We have received advice from superb lawyers that got it exactly right."
But the university should not jump to conclusions about the impact of this decision, said Robert O'Neil, University School of Law professor and director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.
"It will take a lot more analysis of just what the court has said in this case to have any confidence in applying it to other institutions," O'Neil said. "Courts always rule only on the facts of the issue before them, and they are probably more likely to do so (in this issue), given its sensitivity, to confine what they say to the issue before them."
No two admissions programs are the same, he said, noting that differences could arise in the way race is used, the legislative rationale behind it and the way in which each program has administered it.
Often times people have a tendency to "over-read" court decisions "without knowing how limited they typically and properly are," he added.
Since only a panel of three Circuit Court judges ruled on the Arlington case, the Arlington County School Board probably will petition the court of appeals to hear it in front of the full court, O'Neil said.
The case eventually may be heard in front of the Supreme Court, he said, which would be the only way a definitive ruling on the use of race in admissions could be discerned.
Paul M. Gaston, a history professor involved in the initial desegregation of the university, said the court's decision should not be taken into consideration at the university.
"Using race as one of many factors in judging each applicant as an individual is constitutionally defensible," Gaston said. "Under no circumstance should we change our admissions policies on the basis of the 4th Circuit Court decision."
Nevertheless, the university should remain cautious about how the decision might affect its admissions policies, said Karen Holt, University Equal Opportunity Programs director.
"It depends on what the purpose (of the Arlington admissions policy) was and what the school district was trying to do," Holt said.