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Justice: UT affirmative action policy legal

The Obama administration on Monday threw its support behind the University of Texas' use of race as a standard in its admissions policies, asking the Supreme Court not to interfere with the consideration of racial preferences in college admissions.

The Justice Department, in a court brief co-signed by several other government agencies, told the high court that a diverse college population was in the university's — and the government's — best interests. "The armed services and numerous federal agencies have concluded that well-qualified and diverse graduates are crucial to the fulfillment of their missions," Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli said.

The court brief was cosigned by lawyers from the departments of Defense, Education, Commerce, Labor and Health and Human Services.

The Supreme Court's ruling on the University of Texas' admission program will be its first ruling on affirmative action in higher education since 2003. Arguments will be October 10.

Abigail Fisher, a white student who was not admitted to the school in 2008, filed a lawsuit challenged the policy as violation of her civil and constitutional rights.

Texas admits most of its students because they rank among the top 10 percent in their high school classes. Fisher's grades did not put her in that category. For other students, Texas officials say that race is considered among many factors, including academic record, personal essays, leadership potential, extracurricular activities, and honors and awards. The school says race is not used to set quotas, which the high court has previously rejected.

"Race is not considered on its own, and it is never determinative of an applicant's admission by itself," Verrilli said. "Rather, race is one of a number of contextual factors that provide a more complete understanding of the applicant's record and experiences. That is a far cry from impermissible racial balancing."

The Texas policy has been upheld by federal appeals courts, which said it was allowed under the high court's decision in Grutter vs. Bollinger in 2003 that upheld racial considerations in university admissions at the University of Michigan Law School. But Fisher appealed to the current Supreme Court, which is considered to be more conservative than the one that ruled in 2003 and more likely to jettison that decision or at least limit when colleges may take account of race in admissions.

Before adopting race as part of its admission policy, Texas' student body was 21 percent African-American and Hispanic. By 2007, the year before Fisher filed her lawsuit, African-Americans and Hispanics accounted for more than a quarter of the entering freshman class.

"Race is considered not on its own, but as a piece of information that provides valuable context in understanding an applicant's achievements and his likely contributions to the university," Verrilli said. "That individualized consideration is designed to work in conjunction with the Top 10 plan to enable the university to construct a class that is diverse in all ways valued by the institution."

The case is Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, 11-345.

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