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Supreme Court takes on another race case

Mich. law sought to ban preference

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court added a new affirmative action case to its docket Monday. It is already considering a major challenge to the University of Texas’s race-conscious admissions program.

The new case concerns a voter initiative in Michigan that banned racial preferences in admissions to the state’s public universities. In November, the Sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled that the initiative, which amended the state constitution, violated the federal Constitution’s equal protection clause.

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The initiative, approved in 2006 by 58 percent of the state’s voters, prohibited discrimination or preferential treatment in public education, government contracting, and public employment. Groups favoring affirmative action sued to block the part of the law concerning higher education.

The appeals court majority said the problem with the law was that it restructured the state’s political process by making it harder for disfavored minorities to press for change.

“A student seeking to have her family’s alumni connections considered in her application to one of Michigan’s esteemed public universities could do one of four things to have the school adopt a legacy-conscious admissions policy: She could lobby the admissions committee, she could petition the leadership of the university, she could seek to influence the school’s governing board, or, as a measure of last resort, she could initiate a statewide campaign to alter the state’s constitution,’’ Judge R. Guy Cole Jr. wrote for the majority.

‘‘The same cannot be said,’’ Cole added, ‘‘for a black student seeking the adoption of a constitutionally permissible race-conscious admissions policy. That student could do only one thing to effect change: She could attempt to amend the Michigan Constitution — a lengthy, expensive and arduous process — to repeal the consequences of Proposal 2.’’

A dissenting member of the court, Judge Jeffrey S. Sutton, wrote that the majority had it backward. “A state does not deny equal treatment by mandating it,’’ he said.

The majority opinion, he added, ‘‘transforms a potential virtue of affirmative action into a vice.’’

‘‘If there is one feature of affirmative action programs that favors their constitutionality,’’ he said, ‘‘it is that they grow out of the democratic process.’’

The Michigan case will be considered next term. A decision in the Texas case is expected shortly.

The court will hear arguments Tuesday on the constitutionality of California’s ban on same-sex marriage. On Wednesday, the justices will take up the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law that defines marriage as between one man and one woman.

Supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage have lined up for days for tickets to the proceedings. They say the two cases are so potentially historic that they want to be inside the courtroom to watch, no matter what the cost.

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