WASHINGTON – President Bush announced that his administration will challenge an affirmative action program being tested before the Supreme Court, saying the University of Michigan's points-rewards for minority students amounts to a quota system.
"I strongly support diversity of all kinds, including racial diversity in higher education, but the method used by the University of Michigan to achieve this goal is fundamentally flawed," the president said in an announcement in the White House Roosevelt Room.
"At their core, the Michigan policies amount to a quota system that unfairly reward or penalize prospective students solely on their race," he said.
The Bush administration, via Solicitor General Ted Olson, will argue that Michigan's law school program is unconstitutional. The case of reverse discrimination was brought by three white students.
Supporters of the Michigan program have until February to submit their briefs.
According to the president, out of a possible 150 points, the university gives minority students 20 points based solely on their race. Bush said the university gives perfect SAT scores a value of 12 points. Students who reach 100 points are generally admitted.
"So those 20 points awarded based solely on race are often a decisive factor," Bush said.
The Supreme Court banned racial quotas in 1978, but allowed schools to consider race in admissions.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., expressed his disappointment immediately after the president's remarks.
"Once again today, the administration as shown as clearly by their actions as anyone can, that they will continue to side with those opposed to civil rights and opposed to diversity in this country," Daschle said on the floor of the Senate.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said the CBC would also file an amicus curiae or "friend of the court" brief, arguing that minorities would suffer greatly without the University of Michigan preference system.
"Partially as a result of the University of Michigan Law School's voluntary efforts toward greater inclusion, 15 percent of the first-year Michigan law students belong to racial or ethnic minorities. The university has concluded, however, that without the existing diversity considerations, the percentage of new minority students could plunge to 4 percent or less," Cummings said.
Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., a University of Michigan alum and 2004 presidential hopeful, said he would file his own brief in support of the Michigan program, and urged his colleagues to do the same.
The president suggested that a better means of reaching diversity would be based on guaranteeing a spot in universities for a defined percentage of the top grade earners.
"As a nation, as a government and as individuals, we must be vigilant in responding to prejudice wherever we find it, yet as we work to address the wrong of racial prejudice, we must not use means that create another wrong and thus perpetuate our divisions," Bush said.
While governor of Texas, Bush advocated that 10 percent of all high school students become eligible for admission to public universities. Supporters say the policy increased diversity without making race a direct factor in admissions policies because many high schools are made up largely of minority students.
The White House often gives its two cents on potentially landmark cases.
But in this case, an executive branch move is controversial because the court ruling would be the judicial branch's most important statement on racial preferences in a generation and could substantially change the way public colleges and universities select their students.
And at a time when the GOP is trying to prove to the country that it can, in fact, effectively reach out to minorities, Bush's decision may be considered a watershed for how successful his party will be in that endeavor.
The case, the biggest issue facing the Supreme Court this year, is even more politically charged given recent controversies surrounding former Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.
Remarks made by Lott regarding the 1948 segregationist-platform of then-presidential candidate Strom Thurmond eventually forced Lott to step down last month as Senate Republican leader. His political decline was in part due to strong criticism from the president.
A dozen organizations sent Bush a letter last week urging him to endorse the Michigan admissions programs and noting that 11 percent of Hispanics in the United States have college degrees. Among non-Hispanic whites the figure is 28 percent.
Hispanics are the fastest-growing minority group, and Bush has tried to draw Latino voters to the Republican Party.
The administration brief is expected to highlight affirmative action opinions by the Clinton administration that seem to support the president's views, officials said.
For example, in 1997, the Justice Department under Clinton supported a white high school teacher's claim that she suffered reverse discrimination when laid off from her job. A black teacher was retained.
Clinton administration lawyers argued that the school district's affirmative action policy went too far and couldn't be justified by the notion that a diverse teaching squad is a worthy goal.
"A simple desire to promote diversity for its own sake ... is not a permissible basis for taking race into account," the government said then.
Fox News' James Rosen and Julie Asher and The Associated Press contributed to this report.