The Supreme Court let stand a federal court decision upholding the use of race as a factor in admission to a public law school.
The court's action, taken without comment Tuesday, was a blow to opponents of affirmative action, but it may not be the court's last word on the subject.
The court declined to review a decision of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld a race-conscious admissions policy at the University of Washington Law School. That admissions policy was abandoned while this case made its way through the courts, so the Supreme Court's action has no practical effect.
There is a similar affirmative action case on the high court's horizon that would be of potentially greater import.
A federal judge has ordered the University of Michigan to stop using race as a factor in its law school admissions, and that case is likely to end up before the justices within a year or two.
The justices often wait to see whether lower courts disagree about an issue before getting involved.
In the University of Washington case, the 9th Circuit ruled in December that the publicly funded school acted legally when it considered the race of applicants in the 1990s. The school continued to use affirmative action in choosing law students until voters in Washington banned race considerations in admissions in 1998.
Three white applicants sued the school, saying the school excluded them because of their race. In the mid-1990s, the law school offered admission to nonwhite students far out of proportion to their representation in the state's population, the white students claimed.
The three sought damages from the school for what they claimed was reverse discrimination.
Two of the three attended different schools and paid higher tuition than they would have paid at the University of Washington, their lawyers claimed.
In addition to the developing case in Michigan, the 9th Circuit's decision was already at odds with the 5th Circuit, which includes Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.
In 1996, a three-judge panel of that court ruled in favor of four white students who sued the University of Texas, saying its law school did not admit them because of their race. The ruling led to an injunction banning universities from using race as a factor in admission policies.
In 1978, the Supreme Court struck down the use of racial quotas in school admissions, but allowed schools to consider race in deciding which students to accept.
The current case is Smith v. University of Washington Law School, 00-1341.