By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
"Ye shall know the Truth and the Truth shall make you free" - from the Bible (John 8:32), inscribed on the facade of the the University of Texas at Austin Main Building ..."Equal Justice Under Law" - inscription above the U.S. Supreme Court Building
(CNN) - Heman Marion Sweatt and Abigail Noel Fisher both wanted to attend the University of Texas at Austin.
Both claimed their race was a primary reason for their rejection. Both filed civil rights lawsuits, and the Supreme Court ultimately agreed to hear their separate appeals - filed more than half a century apart.
Their cases share much in common - vexing questions of competition, fairness, and demographics - and what role government should play when promoting political and social diversity.
But it is the key difference between these plaintiffs - separated by three generations and a troubled road to "equality" - that now confronts the nation's highest court: Sweatt was black, Fisher is white.
Sweatt's 1950 case produced a landmark court ruling that set the stage for the eventual end of racial segregation in public facilities.
Fisher's case will be heard by the justices Wednesday. The question here could come down to whether a majority on the bench believes affirmative action has run its course - no longer necessary in a country that has come far to confront its racially divisive past, a country that has a president who is African-American.
"There's a good chance that affirmative action, at least in the case of education, is on the chopping block," said Thomas Goldstein, a Washington appellate attorney and SCOTUSblog.com editor.
By Abigail Thernstrom, Special to CNN
Editor's note: Abigail Thernstrom is the vice chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author, most recently, of "Voting Rights and Wrongs: The Elusive Quest for Racially Fair Elections."
(CNN) - The Supreme Court has just agreed to take on the case of Fisher v. University of Texas. Abigail Fisher, a white woman, argues that she has been a victim of the university's race-conscious admission policies; the university contends that its drive for racial and ethnic diversity is educationally enriching - a benefit to all students.
Will the ugly discourse that generally characterizes debate over racially preferential policies disappear with the wave of a magic Supreme Court wand? It seems unlikely. The issue is a cat with many more than nine lives. It arrived in the early 1970s and, despite many attacks, some of which have taken the form of amendments to state constitutions, it has survived in pretty fine fettle.
The court will have only eight justices to hear the arguments. Elena Kagan, having been involved in the case as solicitor general in the Obama administration, has bowed out of participation. Her absence, however, leaves five justices likely to express at least some degree of skepticism about the racial preferences given to non-Asian minorities in the admissions process.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Abigail Thernstrom.
The Supreme Court has agreed to take up a case on the University of Texas' race-conscious admission policies.
If health care reform, illegal immigration crackdowns, voting rights and TV indecency were not enough, now the nine-member bench is poised to add to its high-profile docket, wading into the divisive, sea-change issue of state-mandated racial diversity and affirmative action. Oral arguments would be held this fall, ensuring the court - however it decides the appeal - will be a major campaign issue. A ruling however will not likely be issued until early 2013.
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