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 university admissions by agreeing to take up for the second time a challenge to the process for picking students used by the University of Texas.
The justices agreed to hear a case brought by Abigail Fisher, a white applicant who was denied admission to the entering class of 2008. 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 court noted in its brief order that Justice Elena Kagan will not participate, meaning only eight justices will vote on 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, located in Austin, 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 state's flagship university had justified its limited use of race to achieve diversity, given a lack of workable alternatives.
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)