Ban on racial preferences in California university admissions upheld

Civil rights groups and aspiring minority college students have lost the latest bid to get the University of California to resume considering race in its admissions decisions.

Proposition 209 banned the state’s public universities from using racial preferences to increase the ranks of black, Latino and Native American students, and the 1996 voter initiative has already withstood several constitutional challenges.

Two years ago, a class of prospective students and affirmative action advocates sued then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and UC President Mark Yudof, alleging that banning racial consideration in admissions resulted in the unfair exclusion of minority students and thus violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

The lawsuit was dismissed last year by U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti, citing previous rulings dating back to a year after Proposition 209’s passage that the admissions criteria meet constitutional standards.

On Monday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Conti’s ruling and cited the same 1997 precedent that led the San Francisco judge to dismiss the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs, led by the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, argued that Proposition 209, which became Section 31 of the state Constitution, “has created a racial caste system in which the state’s most prestigious schools train mostly white students and students from some Asian backgrounds.”

They alleged unequal treatment because the law allows admissions officials to depart from baseline admissions criteria to consider veteran status, income, geographic background, athleticism or a family history of attendance at a particular campus.

The suit also criticized admissions officials for relying too heavily on high school grades and test scores, saying that discriminates against students from schools without strong honors programs.

The 9th Circuit said it was bound by its 1997 ruling, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, that “there was simply no doubt that Proposition 209 — which amended the California Constitution to add Section 31 — is constitutional.”

The U.S. Supreme Court narrowly upheld race-based affirmative action in 2003, when Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that it was still necessary to achieve diversity on college campuses. But O’Connor has retired and been replaced by Justice Samuel A. Alito, who provides a fifth voice on the nine-member court opposed to “racial balancing” policies.