The Obama administration, 57 of the Fortune 100 companies and large numbers of public and private colleges that could be affected by the outcome are backing the Texas program. Among the benefits of affirmative action, the administration argues, is that it creates a pipeline for a diverse officer corps that it called "essential to the military's operational readiness." In 2003, the court cited the importance of a similar message from military leaders.
But lawyers for Fisher, of Sugar Land, Texas, said the race-blind method under which the university automatically admits most of its students has been successful. They say Fisher, who has since graduated from Louisiana State University, was excluded because of her race, and they point to a handful of African-American and Latino students who were admitted with lower scores than hers.
"If any state action should respect racial equality, it is university admission," Fisher's lawyers said in their written submission to the court.
The university says that a fuller picture of the process shows that white students with lower scores also were admitted, while many more minority students with higher scores than Fisher also were not offered admission.
The case also raises several contentious side issues, including whether affirmative-action programs hurt the very people they are supposed to be helping. A new book by law professor Richard Sander and journalist Stuart Taylor argues that "large preferences often place students in environments where they can neither learn nor compete effectively, even though these same students would thrive had they gone to less competitive but still quite good schools."
Their book, "Mismatch," says these students are set up to fail, getting lower grades and dropping out more often than white students with similar backgrounds.
Taylor and Sander, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, point to statistics in California to support their argument. After voters changed the state constitution to outlaw racial preferences, UCLA saw significant declines in enrollment by black and Hispanic students.
But the number of African-American and Latino graduates was unchanged for the five classes after the ban when compared to the five years before the change in state law, they said.
The dozens of legal briefs in the Texas case also highlight a debate over whether racial preference programs actually limit the number of students from Asian backgrounds, who are disproportionately represented in student bodies relative to their share of the population.
The university says Asian-American enrollment has increased under the policy that is being challenged. The numbers would be even higher if Texas stopped factoring in race, Fisher and others say.