Supreme Court hears case on affirmative action

Abigail Fisher and Lawyer Bert Rein on steps of the Supreme Court
CBS News

(CBS News) WASHINGTON, D.C. - A long line of people waited overnight for a chance to be inside the Supreme Court Wednesday for the most controversial case of this term. At stake is admission to college for millions of Americans for generations to come. The Court heard a challenge to its longstanding ruling that race may be considered as a factor when considering a candidate for admission.

This challenge to affirmative action began when Abigail Fisher was denied admission to the University of Texas, she says, because of admission policies that favor less-qualified minorities. Her simple argument is to stop using skin color in college admissions.

"I hope the court rules that a student's race and ethnicity should not be considered when applying to the University of Texas," said Fisher.

Supreme Court scrutinizes university's use of race in admissions

Supreme Court takes up affirmative action

This year's entering class at UT is among the most diverse anywhere. Roughly half of the incoming students are white and the other half are minorities. The school is required by law to admit the top ten percent of every high school class regardless of race. But UT also has what it calls a holistic review, where race is separately considered along with other factors such as leadership and family income.

The University argued that its admission plan was legal under a 2003 Supreme Court ruling. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote the majority opinion in 2003 which allowed universities to use race as a factor only to find a "critical mass of underrepresented minority students."

Today, the Courts' conservative justices repeatedly asked when will that be enough.

"What's the logical end point," asked Chief Justice John Roberts. "When will I know you've reached a critical mass?"

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor seemed to defend the policy with her questions.

"At what point does a university know it doesn't have to do any more to equalize the desegregation that's happened in that particular state," asked Justice Sotomayor.

UT's lawyer, Greg Garre, said the University doesn't have a number for achieving diversity. He said that was a judgment call.

"The University is looking foremost to whether or not it has an environment in which African Americans and Hispanic students don't feel like spokespersons or there's cross racial understanding at the student body," said Garre.

Abigail Fisher's lawyer, Bert Rein, says college diversity is important, but not if it discriminates against others.

"The absence of equal protection was a sin in this country for a long, long time," said Rein. "We are simply trying to say those rights belong to everybody."

Some of the Justices seemed conflicted with the 2003 ruling allowing the use of race to achieve diversity. The future use of race as a factor in college admissions will be determined by the outcome of this case.

  • Wyatt Andrews
    Wyatt Andrews

    Wyatt Andrews is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Washington D.C. He is responsible for tracking trends in politics, health care, energy, the environment and foreign affairs.