WASHINGTON – Lawmakers are weighing in on the Supreme Court's split decisions on the University of Michigan's admissions policies, which resulted in the law school's loosely defined affirmative-action system being upheld, but the stricter, point-based undergraduate policy struck down.
Officials at the university's Ann Arbor campus (search) claimed victory as the high court declared that race could be more heavily weighed than grades and other factors for law-school applicants.
But the court's ruling against the undergraduate admissions process — a more formulaic system that gave minorities an advantage against white students — set limits on the role race can play in public-college applications.
President Bush applauded the rulings, saying they "seek a careful balance between the goal of campus diversity and the fundamental principle of equal treatment under the law."
Promising to further policies that encourage diversity in education, Bush said in a statement that racial preferences and quotas were not the ideal way to achieve that goal.
"There are innovative and proven ways for colleges and universities to reflect our diversity without using racial quotas," Bush said. "The court has made clear that colleges and universities must engage in a serious, good faith consideration of workable race-neutral alternatives. I agree that we must look first to these race-neutral approaches to make campuses more welcoming for all students."
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said it would take time for Congress to study the decision and determine its implications
"As America grows more diverse, it is vital that we take concrete steps to help integrate all members of our society and offer everyone the chance to make the most of the opportunities our nation offers," Daschle said in a statement. "I hope the Administration will now work with us to support programs that promote racial and ethnic diversity in education, the military, the workforce, and throughout our society."
Democrats hoping to get their party's nomination to run against President Bush in the 2004 presidential election also said they would continue to promote affirmative action, regardless of the rulings.
The decision against the undergraduate policy "will not prevent well-crafted affirmative-action programs from going forward," Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said in a statement Monday. "The ruling may be mixed, but the message is clear: affirmative action is constitutional and President Bush's efforts to undermine it have failed."
The candidates used the opportunity to demand more liberal judges on the federal benches. Judicial nominations have resulted in some particularly sticky stand-offs between the White House and Senate Democrats, who argue many of Bush's picks for the bench have been too conservative.
The Supreme Court's action "underscores the importance of nominating and confirming justices committed to upholding civil rights," Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., said in a statement.
Edwards had filed an amicus brief (search) with 11 other senators urging justices to uphold the law-school admissions policy.
"The president was wrong about equality in America, wrong about the promise of opportunity for all and, according to the Supreme Court, wrong about the law," Edwards added.
Bush has voiced support for what he calls the "affirmative access" (search) systems used in Texas and Florida.
Texas's practice was begun in 1997, when Bush was governor. It grants admission to state public colleges to all high school students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their classes.
"We must not lose sight of the larger story here," Lieberman added. "The close margins of these decisions demonstrate just how high the stakes are in 2004: Either our courts will be dragged further to the right — dividing American again and jeopardizing a long legacy of civil rights — or a Democratic president will help protect the mainstream American values of equal rights, responsibilities, and opportunities for all."
Former House leader Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., another presidential candidate, called the administration's stance on the issue "backward-looking" and said Monday's decision "is a critical step toward greater inclusiveness in higher education."
Gephardt, a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and a signer of the amicus brief, added that "any effort to deny our nation's compelling interest in ensuring diversity is short-sighted and wrong."
Sen. John Kerry -- the Massachusetts Democrat considered a frontrunner in the race for his party's nod -- said the ruling was a win for everyone, "despite efforts by the Bush administration to inject language like 'quotas' into this debate and roll back civil rights protections."
Kerry said it's "frightening" that the vote was so close.
"These cases make it all too clear: an important part of our nation's future hangs in the balance at the Supreme Court, and if that balance is upset -- if George Bush is allowed to tip the scales by appointing an extremist to the court -- then we could see the clock rolled back to a time of more separate and horribly unequal access to education in America."
Other lawmakers also put in their two cents in on what the Supreme Court's historic ruling meant for the country.
"Affirmative action is an imperfect remedy, but it has made America stronger — and it is still needed," piped in Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn., a 1996 graduate of Michigan's law school.
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., hailed the decision as a "huge victory for all Americans who care about diversity in education and equal opportunity for our citizens. ... The bottom line is that affirmative action will continue."
"The closeness of today's 5-4 decision underscores the stakes involved in any Supreme Court vacancies and the importance of next year's presidential election," added Conyers, who is not in the Democratic race. "If George Bush had his way, the Supreme Court would have struck down affirmative action."
Conyers also chastised the administration, saying the White House didn't even bother to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus (search) in formulating its legal briefs.
"That was unconscionable," Conyers said. "Not only will equal rights be on next year's ballot, but so will the right to choose, the right to privacy, freedom of speech and freedom of religion."
The caucus also filed a brief in support of the school's position.
"I concur with the hope, articulated in the majority opinion, that in 25 years affirmative action may no longer be needed to redress the scourge of discrimination," said Rep. Elijah E. Cumming, D-Md, chair of the group.
"From this historic day forward, let us re-double our efforts to close the educational achievement gap, to remedy the inequities in home ownership and economic wealth, and to mend all other disparities that perpetuate an inequitable society. The future of our country depends on it."