WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court re-entered the debate over affirmative action Monday, agreeing to decide if minorities can be given a boost to get into universities.
The court will decide by next June if race can be used in college admissions, an issue that the justices have dealt with only once before, in a cloudy 1978 ruling that led to more confusion.
The justices will consider whether white applicants to the University of Michigan and its law school were unconstitutionally turned down because of their race.
The cases give the court an opportunity to ban affirmative action in higher education or say how much weight universities may assign to an applicant's race. The stakes are high because many public and private colleges have race-conscious admissions policies.
In other action Monday the court:
-- Said it will consider a Texas case over whether states can punish homosexuals for having sex, a case that tests the constitutionality of sodomy laws in 13 states.
-- Agreed to decide if inmates have constitutional rights to jailhouse visits from young relatives and others, in a case that could have far-reaching implications for prisons around the country.
--Turned down an effort to block specialty car license plates in Louisiana with the slogan "Choose Life.'
--Said it will consider whether California prosecutors can get around time limits on child molestation cases, agreeing to hear an appeal from a grandfather charged with sexually abusing two family members decades earlier.
Affirmative action supporters argue that without policies that encourage diverse student bodies, the top public colleges in the country would not be representative.
Opponents contend that those policies discriminate against white students, giving slots to less qualified minorities.
"We come to this with a great deal of trepidation because affirmative action has been under assault," said Theodore Shaw, counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which urged the court to review the cases. "Confusion isn't going to go away until the Supreme Court resolves this question."
Curt Levey, a lawyer with the Center for Individual Rights which is representing the white students, said black enrollment initially fell when race considerations were outlawed in public colleges in California, Florida, Texas and Washington state. But he said the numbers are increasing, proof that race does not have to be a factor in admissions.
A divided appeals court upheld the law school's practices in May, saying the Constitution allows colleges and graduate schools to seek "a meaningful number" of minority students, so long as the school avoids a fixed quota system.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati has not ruled in a companion case addressing the school's undergraduate policy, which was argued on the same day as the law school case.
Justices took the unusual step of taking the case anyway, without awaiting a ruling.
University attorney Jonathan Alger said the school wasn't surprised that the Supreme Court decided to hear the cases. He said the university believes affirmative action has worked well and "we're ready to defend our policies in front of the court."
The high court has passed up other well-known cases that presented similar questions about the role of race in higher education.
There was pressure from both sides of the debate for the court to intervene now.
"It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the court's decision in these cases will directly affect the lives not only of this generation of students but of generations of students to follow," Shaw told justices in a filing on behalf of black and Hispanic students.
The last college higher education case at the high court involved Allan Bakke, a white man rejected for admission to a California medical school while minorities with lower test scores got in through a special program. The court on a 5-4 vote outlawed racial quotas. Justice Lewis F. Powell wrote separately that schools could still consider race, so long as they did not use quotas. Courts around the country have set contradictory rules.
Only two of the justices who considered that 1978 case still sit on the court -- Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice John Paul Stevens.
"Many questions cry out for clarification," lawyers for white law school applicant Barbara Grutter told justices in a filing.
Grutter was a 43-year-old businesswoman and mother when she applied to the law school in 1996 but was not accepted. She said that she suspected reverse discrimination after seeing statistics about the racial makeup and qualifications of recent Michigan law classes.
Her appeal, and the other one by two would-be undergraduate students, center on the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection for all under the law.
Maureen E. Mahoney, a lawyer for the university, told the court in a filing that if the 1978 ruling is overturned, it "would produce the immediate resegregation of many -- and perhaps most -- of this nation's finest and most selective institutions."
She said colleges are trying to improve learning with a diverse environment.
About 15 percent of the first year Michigan law students are minorities. The Supreme Court was told that without diversity considerations, the number of minorities in a freshman class could plunge to less than .04 percent.
The cases are Grutter v. Bollinger, 02-241, and Gratz v. Bollinger, 02-516.
On the Net:
Supreme Court: http://www.supremecourtus.gov/
Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals: http://ca6.uscourts.gov
University of Michigan admissions lawsuit site: http://www.umich.edu/(tilde)urel/admissions