The Supreme Court yesterday agreed to review a decision that a special program to help minority students enter medical school denied equal protection of the law to whites.
The action has vast implications for affirmative-action plans throughout the country, not only in institutions of higher education but possibly in industry as well.
The court action sets the stage for a likely confrontation between those who claim that such plans are constitutionally valid and the only practical way to overcome handicaps imposed by racial, social and economic discrimination against blacks, Hispanics and other minorities, and those who claim that such plans impose unconstitutional reverse discrimination on the white majority.
The justices agreed without comment to consider this fall a California Supreme Court decision that by setting aside 16 of 100 places in each new class of minority applicants, the medical school of the University of California at Davis had discriminated against Allen P. Bakke, a white, solely because of his race.
The California high court, ruling 6 to 1 last September, said the university had rejected Bakke's application for admission though, by its own standards, he was better qualified than some minority students it had enrolled.
The state court also termed the medical school plan "a revival of quotas" that is invalid under the 14th Amendment, which affords equal protection to "any person" but not, the court held, to any race or group.
The university regents, who had requested review of the decision, told the Supreme Court that to let the ruling stand would, "in all likelihood, mark a return to virtually all-white professional education in the major universitities of this country."
The deans of four publicly supported California law schools, in a friend-of-the-court brief, told the justices that an affirmation of the decision could lead to the virtual end of "the movement of minority groups toward meaningful representation" in the legal profession.
The deans based their warning largely on a phenomenon of recent years: an "explosion" in law school applications accompanied by a steep rise in the academic standards applicants must meet in regular admissions programs.
Minority students admitted under special programs, which subordinate test scores and grades and stress non-academic factors, "do satisfactory work, and a number of them outperform regular-admissions students whose records appeared much better," the deans said.
In 1974, the medical school at Davis, which is west of Sacramento, enrolled some minority students whose academic ratings were up to 30 points lower that those of some rejected white applicants. One of the latter was Bakke, 37, a mechanical engineer and Marine Corps veteran. He asked the high court to let the California decision stand.
Bakke contended that reversal or substantial modification of the decision "would risk transforming what historically have been individual rights into 'group' rights," and asked, "Which groups are to be preferred? How extensive a preference should be granted?"
Ironically, some civil rights groups initially also had preferred to let the decision stand, reasoning that its harm to their cause thereby might be confined to California rather than possibly being extended by the high court of the rest of the nation.
In recent briefs, however, the National Conference of Black Lawyers and the National Lawyers Guild, among others, urged the court to nulify the California decision, party on the ground that it was based on "an inadequate record" of litigation from which minorities had been excluded.
If the high court sends the case back to be litigated again, as these groups wish, the lawsuit probably would work its way back up to the California Supreme Court. Two of the six justices who ruled for Bakke have since been repeated.
Contending that "reverse discrimination . . . is rampant" in undergraduate and graduate schools, the Committee on Academic Non-Discrimination and Integrity told the high court that the "sole substantive issue" is whether the equal-protection clause protects whites as well as blacks in admission to state universities. The committee, composed of public and private university faculty, was formed in 1972 to oppose "racial or sex quotas."
The key issues in the Bakke case first came before the high court in 1974, when Marco DeFunis alleged that the University of Washington law school's special admissions program had barred him simply because he was white. The court did not take the case on the ground that DeFunis' subsequent admission to another law school had mooted it.