By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday waded into a new major battle over the future of affirmative action in college admissions by agreeing to take up for the second time a challenge to the process for picking students used by the University of Texas at Austin.
The justices agreed to hear a case brought by Abigail Fisher, a white applicant who was denied admission to the entering class of 2008 at Texas's flagship state university. The court will review a July 2014 ruling by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of the university.
"The outcome of this case may bring our nation closer to the day when a student’s race and ethnicity is not a factor that a school may consider during the admissions process," said Edward Blum, the conservative advocate behind the legal challenge.
Civil rights groups that back affirmative action - a policy under which racial minorities historically subject to discrimination are given certain preferences in education and employment - were dismayed by the court agreeing to take the case.
“It’s baffling that the court has decided to rehear arguments in a case where the University of Texas at Austin’s admissions policy has already been upheld," said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Only eight of the nine justices will decide the case. The court noted in its brief order that Justice Elena Kagan will not participate, apparently because she was part of the Justice Department when it was involved earlier in the case.
The high court has already considered Fisher's case once. In June 2013, the court did not directly rule on the program's constitutionality but ordered the appeals court to scrutinize it more closely.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for a 7-1 majority that courts must "verify that it is necessary for a university to use race to achieve the educational benefits of diversity." The university admits most freshmen through a program that guarantees admission to students in roughly the top 10 percent of their high school classes. It also uses other "holistic" factors including race to admit the remainder.
The second time around, the appeals court found that the university had justified its limited use of race to achieve diversity, given a lack of workable alternatives.
University President Gregory Fenves said that the admissions policy is "narrowly-tailored, constitutional and has been upheld by the courts multiple times."
While the university's program has resulted in significant racial and ethnic diversity, the percentages of black and Hispanic students remain lower than in the state's overall population.
Fisher said the university denied her admission in favor of lesser-qualified minorities. She later graduated from Louisiana State University but, she said, stayed in the case to help others in similar positions.
The court will hear oral arguments and decide the case in its next term, which starts in October and ends in June 2016.
The case is Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, U.S. Supreme Court, 14-981.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)