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PHOTOS: Supreme Court Takes Up Affirmative Action

10:37 PM, Oct 10, 2012   |    comments
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U.S. Supreme Court (Getty Images)

(CBS NEWS) -- Affirmative action is rarely discussed on the campaign trail, but it nevertheless is a matter of heated debate in Washington this year.

The Supreme Court today will hear an hour of arguments in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which asks the court to rule on whether the university's consideration of race in admissions is constitutional. Abigail Fisher, a 22-year-old white woman who was rejected from UT Austin in 2008, has filed suit against the school, arguing its consideration of race doesn't meet standards previously set by the high court. If the court rules against the university, it could potentially change the way schools across the nation talk about race.

The response to Fisher's case proves that while affirmative action has been a matter of debate for decades, it remains a potent one. Dozens of individuals and organizations have given their input to the Supreme Court through amicus briefs -- 17 briefs filed to support Fisher and 73 in support of the university.

Republican Rep. Allen West, Ronald Reagan's attorney general Ed Meese and the libertarian Cato Institute all signed onto briefs backing Fisher. On the other side, the court is hearing from the likes of Democratic Senate leaders Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer, Teach for America and the American Psychological Association. Dozens of organizations in favor of the school's system plan on holding a rally outside of the Supreme Court today.

The Supreme Court set a precedent for the use of affirmative action in college admissions in 2003, when in Grutter v. Bollinger it rejected the use of racial quotas but said that schools could consider race as part of a "holistic" review of a student's application. In 2003, however, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was the swing vote in favor of the "holistic" approach. This year, the court's balance is tipped towards conservatives.

In the arguments submitted to the court, Fisher's lawyers argue that UT Austin's admissions process fails to meet the standards set by Grutter. If the Supreme Court concludes that the university's system does meet the standards set by Grutter, then Fisher's lawyers argue that the precedent should be clarified or overruled.

CUNY School of Law Prof. Ruthann Robson, who has followed Fisher at the Constitutional Law Prof Blog, told CBSNews.com that overruling Grutter would be a drastic move, politically speaking. By picking apart UT Austin's system, however, the court "could eviscerate Grutter without overruling it," she said.

If the court gave a critical ruling against UT Austin's system -- which already strives to consider race as a part of the "holistic" picture -- other schools would be hard pressed to defend their own consideration of race. Abigail Fisher wants college admissions to be "completely race neutral and race blind," Robson explained.

The University of Texas argues that a diverse student body is an indispensable part of training future leaders with "invaluable educational benefits." It argues that its admissions process meets the standards the court set in Grutter and other cases.

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