Bush to intervene in affirmative action case


Published: Wednesday, January 15, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 15, 2003 at 12:36 a.m.

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration is likely to oppose a University of Michigan program that gives preference to minority students, officials said Monday night.

Such a step would inject President Bush into the politically explosive affirmative action debate at a time when the Republican Party is seeking support from minorities.

White House and Justice Department lawyers, acting on guidance from the president himself, are drafting a proposed Supreme Court brief arguing against programs that gave black and Hispanic students an edge when applying to the University of Michigan and its law school, three senior administration officials said.

Bush is awaiting those briefs before deciding his course of action, the officials said, adding that all signs point toward the White House intervening in the biggest affirmative action case in a generation.

The lawyers intend to argue that diversity can be achieved through ways other than racial preferences and quotas, drawing from Bush's record as Texas governor and affirmative action opinions drafted by the Clinton White House, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

At the president's behest, deliberations have been limited to an unusually small circle of aides at the White House and the offices of attorney general and solicitor general.

Legal briefs opposing affirmative action are due to the court Thursday, and briefs supporting the Michigan admissions plans are due in February.

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said earlier Monday that Bush was still reviewing the matter.

"It can be one of any number of decisions or no decision," Fleischer said.

The issue is a lightning rod both for conservative voters, who already back Bush, and for minority voters, whom Republicans are courting.

Further complicating the White House's decision is the fallout for the GOP from the racially provocative comments that cost Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., his job as Senate majority leader. Bush denounced Lott's remarks, which were widely interpreted as nostalgia for segregation.

Siding with white students so soon after the Lott controversy could be seen as an affront to blacks.

"He is very sensitive to issues involving race and giving opportunities to people from a variety of backgrounds while also giving opportunities in a manner for one and for all in our country," Fleischer said.

The administration is not a party to the Michigan fight and does not have to take a position. Traditionally, however, the White House weighs in on potential landmark cases.

Aides said last week that Bush was unlikely to sit on the sidelines. At the least, aides said, Bush would find a public forum to express his opposition to racial preferences and support of alternatives that strive for diversity.

After meetings Monday, aides said the prospects for an administration brief had risen over the weekend.

In Texas, Bush opposed racial preferences in public universities and proposed instead that students graduating in the top 10 percent of all high schools be eligible for admission. Supporters say the policy increased diversity because many schools are made up largely of minority students; critics said Bush's plan was a blow to affirmative action.

Among the Clinton-era cases that would bolster their argument against the University of Michigan, officials said, is a 1997 affirmative action suit that supported a white high school teacher's claim that she suffered reverse discrimination when laid off from her job. A black teacher was retained.

The Clinton administration argued that the school district's affirmative action policy went too far and could not be justified merely by the notion that a diverse teacher corps is a worthy goal.

"A simple desire to promote diversity for its own sake ... is not a permissible basis for taking race into account," the government said then.

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