The Michigan case was divisive in 2003, with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor the swing vote. "In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity," O'Connor said. "The (Michigan) Law School's educational judgment that such diversity is essential to its educational mission is one to which we defer."
But she left the bench in 2006, replaced by Justice Samuel Alito, who is expected to strongly question the Texas policy.
Justice Clarence Thomas was among four conservative justices who found the Michigan policies unconstitutional. "The Law School, of its own choosing, and for its own purposes, maintains an exclusionary admissions system that it knows produces racially disproportionate results. Racial discrimination is not a permissible solution to the self-inflicted wounds of this elitist admissions policy."
Despite that high court ruling, some states, including California, do not allow race considerations in college admissions. The issue now before an arguably more conservative high court is whether the Texas policies should be re-evaluated, as states have had nearly a decade to re-evaluate such diversity considerations.
A final word about Sweatt. When the Houston mailman applied to the University of Texas in 1946, no African-American at the time could be admitted to any law school in the state, and there were even no black-only law schools. So a purported "separate-but-equal" government policy was in fact "separate and non-existent."
School administrators cited the established white-only policies for their rejection -- "Texas' wise and long-continued policy of segregation," in the state attorney general's words -- and instead offered Sweatt an out-of-state scholarship. He refused and took his case to court.
By that time the state had agreed to create a blacks-only School of Law of the Texas State University for Negroes -- in Houston, not Austin -- but its implementation was delayed for many months. The high court unanimously found in favor of Sweatt -- concluding the separate school for a variety of quantitative and intangible reasons lacked "substantive equality." He became the first African-American ever ordered admitted to an all-white institution.
His legal victory was an important landmark -- a building block that culminated three years later in the 1953 Brown v. Board case, where the justices ordered a permanent end to state-mandated public, racial segregation.
Sweatt's personal victory was bittersweet. He entered the UT law school, but later dropped out, following ill health as well as hostility from white classmates. He died in 1982, and the Travis County civil courthouse in Austin was renamed in his honor.
The current case is Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (11-345).