By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court said on Tuesday it would decide whether a state university may consider an applicant's race to achieve a more diverse student body, revisiting a divisive social issue it last addressed nine years ago.
The high court agreed to hear an appeal by a white female applicant, Abigail Fisher, who was denied undergraduate admission in 2008 to the University of Texas at Austin.
She challenged the university's admissions policies for discriminating against her on the basis of race in violation of her constitutional rights and the federal civil rights laws.
Her attorney urged the Supreme Court to reconsider its last ruling on the issue in 2003, when it reaffirmed that a diverse student population can justify use of race as one factor to help minorities gain admission to public universities and colleges.
Since 2003, the court, with the addition of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, appointees of then-President George W. Bush, has become more conservative and more skeptical of racial preferences in education.
The Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in the case in its upcoming term that begins in October, with a ruling likely early next year. It will be one of the highest profile cases of the 2012-13 term.
The high court will consider the case with eight of its nine members, as Justice Elena Kagan did not take part in considering the appeal. She gave no reason for her recusal, but she has taken herself out of cases when she worked on the issue in her prior job as solicitor general in the Obama administration.
A federal judge and a U.S. appeals court upheld the admissions policies that the University of Texas adopted in 2005. The Supreme Court agreed to review the appeals court ruling.
Texas provides admission for those in the top 10 percent of the state high schools. Fisher did not qualify and was put into a pool of applicants where race is considered along with other factors such as test scores, community service, leadership qualities and work experience.
She was competing for less than 20 percent of admission slots that remained. Fisher and another white female student denied admission sued, but the other applicant has already graduated from another college and has dropped out of the case.
Fisher said in the lawsuit that her academic credentials exceeded those of many minority students, but that she lost out because of a coding system in which race is used as a factor in admissions decisions to increase classroom diversity.
In appealing to the Supreme Court, Fisher's attorney, Bert Rein, said the constitutional issues in the case were "critically important."
Texas officials disagreed.
State Solicitor General Jonathan Mitchell said university administrators should get deference, the university had properly identified under-represented minorities, the policy was narrowly drawn and there was no justification for the court to reconsider or overrule its 2003 decision.
The Supreme Court case is Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, No. 11-345.
(Reporting By James Vicini; Editing by Vicki Allen)