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WASHINGTON: US Supreme Court justices vigorously challenged a University of Texas admissions programme that favours some African-American and Hispanic applicants on Wednesday in a case that could determine how universities use affirmative action at campuses nationwide.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito pressed the university’s lawyer on the details of the admissions scheme and when race breaks a tie between similar applicants.

Roberts challenged the university’s lawyer on how judges would know when the university had achieved its desired level of diversity.

Questions from liberal justices, such as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, suggested support for the programme. Fellow liberal, Justice Stephen Breyer, questioned the lawyer for those challenging the programme why the court should backtrack on past decisions that have allowed affirmative action.

Breyer asked the lawyer why the court should overturn a precedent into which “so much thought and attention went” and which “so many people across the country have relied on.”

The overall tone of the hearing suggested that while the court might not uphold the Texas plan, there would not be a majority of justices to broadly strike down the use of race in admissions.

The justices who appeared most resistant to the Texas plan were Roberts, Alito and Justice Antonin Scalia. Justice Clarence Thomas, who asked no questions, would likely side with those conservatives, based on his past writings on affirmative action. Those justices appearing ready to uphold the Texas programme were Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor. Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose position may be decisive, signaled some concerns with the Texas plan but did not suggest by his questions that he was ready to curtail such nationwide practices.

The case arises nine years after the Supreme Court narrowly upheld affirmative action in a dispute over the University of Michigan Law School’s admissions practices. By a 5-4 vote, the court in 2003 said universities could consider an applicant’s race alongside a host of other factors to improve diversity.—Reuters

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