A private school in Hawaii can favor Hawaiian natives for admission as a means of giving a helping hand to a downtrodden indigenous population, a divided federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.

The decision by a 15-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned an earlier ruling by three of the same judges that the Kamehameha Schools policy amounted to unlawful discrimination.

In Tuesday's decision, the majority noted that the case was unique because Congress has singled out the plight of native Hawaiians for improvement, just as lawmakers have done with Alaskan natives and American Indians.

The policy "furthers the urgent need for better education of Native Hawaiians, which Congress has repeatedly identified as necessary," the court said.

Admission to the elite school is first granted to qualified Hawaiian students, and non-Hawaiians may be admitted if there are openings available.

Only one in eight eligible applicants is admitted to the schools, which serve about 5,400 students at three campuses.

The case was brought by a white student excluded because of his race.

Three of the dissenting judges wrote separately that civil rights law prohibits a private school from denying admission because of race.

The Kamehameha Schools were established under the 1883 will of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop as part of a trust now worth about $6.8 billion.

The trust subsidizes tuition and is designed to help remedy some of the wrongs done during the U.S.-backed overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom in 1893.

The decision came a day after the Supreme Court suggested during arguments in a different case that it might ban the practice of race-based admissions in public schools, even if the policy was intended to create racial harmony.

The last time the Supreme Court ruled on a similar issue was in 2003, when justices banned the use of rigid formulas that award points based on race for admission to the University of Michigan and its law school.

But the court that same year also permitted colleges to consider race as part of a "holistic review" of every application.