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The Daily Tar Heel

Bush Opposes UM Affirmative Action Policy

Ruling to impact admissions nationwide.

President Bush criticized Wednesday an affirmative action program under review by the U.S. Supreme Court, calling the practices in question "divisive, unfair and impossible to square with the Constitution."

The court's ruling in the pending University of Michigan-Ann Arbor case likely will be its most definitive decision on affirmative action and will ripple through college admissions offices nationwide.

The issue arose after the Supreme Court agreed to hear two cases in which several applicants allege that the graduate and undergraduate admissions policies at the University of Michigan violated their constitutional rights by discriminating against them based on race. This is the first time since 1978 that the court has agreed to hear a case on affirmative action.

While Bush maintains that he supports diversity in higher education, he has instructed the U.S. solicitor general -- the administration's chief legal counsel -- to submit a brief to the court arguing that university's policies are unconstitutional.

"Our Constitution makes it clear that people of all races must be treated equally under the law," Bush said. "Yet, as we work to address the wrong of racial prejudice, we must not use means that create another wrong."

With Bush's announcement, the White House and the Republican Party find themselves in their second race-based controversy in as many months.

Bush's actions Wednesday come on the heels of the controversy over racially charged comments U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., made last month. The statements cost Lott the Senate majority leader post and plunged his party into a debate over its record on civil rights.

Bush's critics -- including North Carolina's Democratic Sen. John Edwards -- lambasted him for Wednesday's announcement, saying he has shirked his responsibility to protect civil rights. "President Bush had a chance to show he supports diversity and civil rights, but he failed," Edwards said.

But no matter how Bush's stance and the solicitor general's brief are received, it is clear they carry with them great import.

"The solicitor general's briefs have always been greatly respected," said Eugene Gressman, law professor emeritus at UNC and a nationally recognized expert on the Supreme Court. "The Department of Justice and the solicitor general's office is very close to the Supreme Court."

Gressman, who has tried cases in front of the court for more than 60 years, said the Bush administration brief adds another element to a case already fraught with complexities.

The case before the court is not only complicated in its own right but carries with it the weight of timing. Gressman said that the court -- now closely divided -- has grown increasingly conservative and that this may be the last chance to have a balanced debate on affirmative action.

"I think this is the last possible chance to ever get a positive vote on affirmative action," he said. "There aren't many cases that raise this issue, and this is a very definitive case that will stand for a long time."

The State & National Editor can be reached stntdesk@unc.edu.

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