Students join U-M cases

Minority students and affirmative action groups have won the right to intervene in two lawsuits challenging the University of Michigan’s use of affirmative action in its admissions policies.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Aug. 10 to allow two groups composed mostly of minority high school and college students to help defend the university’s law school and undergraduate programs against lawsuits brought by white applicants. The plaintiffs, represented by the Center for Individual Rights, argue that admissions policies that factor in race are unconstitutional. Intervenors plan to argue that affirmative action helps make up for an admissions process that already favors whites.

"It’s a totally historic victory for the students," says Miranda Massie, lead attorney for 41 students and three pro-affirmative action coalitions involved. "That the students have the right to take part is significant in itself as a matter of democratic participation, but it’s even more significant since they’re the ones that have everything to gain or to lose."

In overturning two separate district court decisions to deny intervention, the appellate court ruled the university might not adequately represent the interests of minority students. In both cases, it was argued that the university is unlikely to point out its discrimination against non-white applicants.

Additionally, in the undergraduate case, the new ruling states that the lower court erred in determining the students have no substantial legal interest in the lawsuit. The new ruling opened the way for 17 African-American and Latino high school students and the coalition Citizens for Affirmative Action’s Preservation to participate in the undergraduate suit.

Although U-M has never officially opposed the students’ intervention, university administrators never agreed they might not adequately represent minority student interests. That had to be established before the groups could intervene.

Nevertheless, U-M associate vice president and deputy general counsel Elizabeth Barry issued a statement after the ruling, welcoming the intervenors.

"Both the intervenors and the university are fighting for the same thing: the preservation of a diverse student body," Barry said in the press release. "This ruling puts students front and center in the cases and their point of view is very important to this debate."

University officials have said they are committed to arguing that affirmative action helps preserve needed diversity in higher education.

The CIR contends that student intervention was unnecessary.

"The University of Michigan had shown every interest in vigorously defending these cases," says Terry Pell, spokesperson for CIR, which opposed the students’ intervention.

Pell says the cases were expected to go to trial sometime this fall, but there’s no telling how long the recent ruling will delay that process.

"What it essentially does is add issues to the case," he says. "Our only hope here is that we will be able to proceed expeditiously."

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