By WILL WEISSERT and PAUL J. WEBER
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - A federal appeals court panel ruled Tuesday that the University of Texas can continue using race as a factor in undergraduate admissions as a way of promoting diversity on campus, the latest in an ongoing case that made it to the U.S. Supreme Court last year only to be sent back to lower courts for further review.
In a 2-1 ruling, judges from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that barring the university from using race would ultimately lead to a less diverse student body in defiance of previous legal precedent that promoting diversity was an important part of education.
"We are persuaded that to deny UT Austin its limited use of race in its search for holistic diversity would hobble the richness of the educational experience," the opinion stated.
The case began in 2008 when Abigail Fisher, who is white, was denied admission to the University of Texas's flagship Austin campus because she did not graduate in the top 10 percent of her high school class - the criterion for 75 percent of the school's admissions. The university also passed her over for a position among the remaining 25 percent, which is reserved for special scholarships and people who meet a formula for personal achievement that includes race as a factor.
The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2013. But rather than issue a landmark decision on affirmative action, it voted 7-1 to tell a lower appeals court to take another look at Fisher's lawsuit.
Tuesday's ruling said past cases have "settled that universities may use race as part of a holistic admissions program where it cannot otherwise achieve diversity. This interest is compelled by the reality that university education is more the shaping of lives than the filling of heads with facts."
At a hastily organized news conference, University of Texas President Bill Powers said it was "a great day for higher education nationwide."
In a statement, Powers added: "We remain committed to assembling a student body at The University of Texas at Austin that brings with it the educational benefits of diversity while respecting the rights of all students."
Edward Blum, one of the attorneys representing Fisher, called the ruling "disappointing but not unexpected." He said the legal team could next appeal to the full 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, or directly back to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"I think we need a little more time to more carefully study the opinion and weight the pluses and minuses of both avenues," Blum said by phone Tuesday.
In her own statement, Fisher said she too was disappointed "that the judges hearing my case are not following the Supreme Court's ruling last summer."
"I remain committed to continuing this lawsuit even if it means we appeal to the Supreme Court once again," she added.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was among the groups that helped argue in favor of the University of Texas and its admissions policies. It called the ruling a victory but conceded that the disputes over affirmative action are not over.
"It's going to be a conversation that we need to continue and a difficult one," said Janai Nelson, associate director counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. "But what this decision emphasizes is that there are ways in which we can use race in a positive and progressive manner."