Deadline Arrives for High Court Affirmative Action Briefs

Hundreds of groups scrambled to meet the midnight deadline Wednesday to file their views on the issue of race in college admissions policies in the biggest affirmative action case to reach the Supreme Court in decades.

Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, Nike Inc., the American Psychological Association and the New York City Council are just a handful of groups that are vying to have their voices heard in the controversial University of Michigan affirmative-action based admission policy.

When all is said and done, the high court will have mounds of paperwork to review in addition to the fat file in the long-running University of Michigan case.

Briefs supporting the college outnumbered those supporting the students by more than 3-to-1.

The list of those arguing in the case is a who's who in many fields — an unlikely combination of doctors, politicians, social workers, and makers of cereal, ships, tennis shoes, prescription drugs, shampoo, soft drinks and other products. One brief alone was signed by nearly 14,000 college students.

Whether the briefs will have much influence on the nine justices is up for debate, but the drafters hope they will at least prompt questions during the April 1 arguments over whether the University of Michigan can give minority applications extra points based on their race when considering who to accept into its university and law school.

Supporters of the application process say the university is doing exactly what it should to promote diversity.

"The University of Michigan program is not a quota system," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. "It is a fair and reasonable process that strengthens America by giving students from many backgrounds an opportunity to develop their talents and abilities and contribute to our national well being."

Daschle, who argues that minority admissions have plummeted in states where affirmative action programs have been disbanded, filed a brief in support of the university's program along with 10 other senators, including Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy as well as presidential hopefuls John Edwards and John Kerry.

Daschle introduced a resolution four weeks ago ordering Senate lawyers to submit an amicus brief in the case "that would have made it clear that the United States Senate supports diversity in education." He noted in a statement Wednesday that Republicans blocked the resolution and one member of the GOP leadership called it "kind of a waste of the Senate's time."

But critics of the university's policy argue that racial preference programs unconstitutionally discriminate against white students.

The filings in support of the university's applications process are "politically correct" public relations efforts, said Curt Levey, an attorney at the Center for Individual Rights, which is representing the white students who filed the case.

"The support on the other side, it is miles wide, but it's about an inch deep," Levey said.

The Bush administration has also filed a brief calling the University of Michigan's program a quota system, which is unconstitutional. In 1978, the Supreme Court outlawed racial quotas in university admissions, but left room for race to be a "plus factor."

The Bush administration stopped short of challenging any use of race in university selection or in other government decisions.

While it will be July before a final decision is expected, several companies weighed in on the racial preferences debate in anticipation of the impact the court's decision will have on other areas such as hiring.

Sixty-five companies with combined annual revenues of more than $1 trillion wrote the court saying that the future of American business is on the line.

"It is necessary to ensure that members of all segments of our society receive the education and training they need to become the leaders of tomorrow," argued companies including 3M, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nike, Reebok, American Airlines, United Airlines, ChevronTexaco, Shell Oil, Northrop Grumman, Pfizer, Eli Lilly, Schering-Plough, General Mills, Kellogg Co., and Johnson and Johnson.

Several former military leaders also banded together to support the university's policy, saying affirmative action programs are needed in order to create a diverse officer corps through the Reserve Officers Training Corps program offered in many universities.

Among the military leaders signing onto the brief were former defense secretaries William Perry and William Cohen; Gen. Schwarzkopf, who commanded the first Persian Gulf War; and Adm. William Crowe, Gen. Hugh Shelton and Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, all former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But despite the heavy hitters who have thrown their support behind the program — and the few notables who have opposed it, including the state of Florida, several law professors and think tanks and organizations — some analysts say the chief justices will probably not hear anything new.

"By filing the briefs, it gives [the two sides] a sense of participation in the process rather than sitting back," said Philip Pucillo, a professor at Ave Maria School of Law in Michigan. "I don't think any one of them offers anything particularly novel."

"They want to be seen as having fought a hard fight," Levey said of the supporters, adding that the college has better chances of winning in the court of public opinion than in the conservative Supreme Court.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.