WASHINGTON – House Democrats are launching a legal attack in reaction to a White House decision to oppose the University of Michigan's affirmative action admissions policy by filing a brief with the Supreme Court, which is ruling on the constitutionality of the system.
Nearly 100 House Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Thursday filed a brief with the high court supporting the school's policy of using a points system that awards minority candidates extra points based on their race.
"The issue is as fundamental as our democracy itself," Pelosi said in announcing the suit. "We must not deprive these young people of their opportunity.
"Affirmative action in education gives students a ladder to climb over the barriers to opportunity. Unfortunately, the Bush administration wants to haul that ladder away," she said.
Members of the black, Hispanic and Asian House caucuses joined in the brief and took turns chastising President Bush for opposing Michigan's policy.
Dick Gephardt, former House minority leader, also filed his own brief Thursday in support of the university's policies.
"I believe we must continue to work towards greater inclusiveness in higher education and reject the backward-looking policies of the Bush administration that would deny our nation's compelling interest in ensuring diversity," said Gephardt of Missouri, a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and potential presidential nominee.
"Affirmative action is an essential tool in expanding educational opportunities for women and people of color," Gephardt said in a statement, calling the school's policy "a constitutionally permissible tool to promote diversity in higher education."
Signing on to Gephardt's brief were Democratic Reps. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, Carolyn Kilpatrick of Michigan, Xavier Becerra of California, Mel Watt of North Carolina, Elijah Cummings of Maryland and Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania.
On Jan. 15, Bush said he supports diversity in higher education, but that Michigan's program "unfairly rewards or penalizes students based solely on their race."
The president said he would prefer a "race-neutral" admission program like those in California, Florida and Texas, which grants admission to the state's universities to all students who reach the top percentages of their classes. Supporters of that system say it better achieves diversity because many students who make the grade come from schools where minority students are the majority.
White House legal eagles prepared a brief urging the Supreme Court to strike down the university's policies. It was filed just before the deadline for opposing briefs.
Michigan's admissions policies have been under fire since 1997, when the university was sued by two white students denied admission to its undergraduate school and a third denied admission to its law school. Each claimed they were passed over in favor of less-qualified minority students.
Applicants for Michigan's undergraduate classes are scored by points, with minorities or some poor applicants receiving a boost of 20 points on a scale of 150. Generally, students who earn 100 points are accepted into the university and its law school program.
The Bush administration says the point system is skewed toward minorities, noting that a perfect SAT score is worth just 12 points, and an outstanding essay gets three points.
At the law school, admissions officers use a looser formula that tries to ensure each class has a "critical mass" of about 10 percent or 12 percent minority enrollment.
The Supreme Court has scheduled arguments on the two lawsuits for April 1.
Pelosi used the filing to take another slap at the White House, saying the administration has labeled more than 8,000 high-poverty schools as failing, but it denies the funding promised to turn those schools around, falling short by more than $6 billion. She noted that Bush's budget cuts after-school programs by 40 percent and freezes Pell Grants.
"Sadly, these are just a few examples of the tools that the president is taking away from minority and disadvantaged children and youth," Pelosi said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.