WASHINGTON - The US Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that states can disregard race as a factor in university admissions, in a fresh blow to a legacy of the 1960s civil rights movement.
The 6-2 ruling upheld the constitutionality of a measure passed by referendum in Michigan that disallowed so-called affirmative action in college admissions.
Effectively favouring voter initiatives over the courts, the decision was expected to have repercussions far beyond Michigan - governors of Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma and West Virginia had supported Michigan's appeal.
The ruling was the latest to chip away at a practice used to promote racial and ethnic diversity of university student bodies while countering the effects of racial discrimination.
It also continued a conservative trend in court rulings on civil rights issues.
Last year, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requiring certain states to get federal approval before changing their voting laws.
On Tuesday, liberal justice Stephen Breyer voted with the conservative majority, and the fourth member of the court's liberal wing, Justice Elena Kagan, had recused herself.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy argued that the case was "not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved. It is about who may resolve it." "There is no authority in the constitution of the United States or in this court's precedents for the judiciary to set aside Michigan laws that commit this policy determination to the voters," he said.
In 2006, Michigan voters approved a measure prohibiting the state's public universities and schools from "discriminating against or granting preferential treatment for any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, colour, ethnicity, or national origin." Known as Proposition 2, the measure was struck down by an appeals court, and the case reached the Supreme Court.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who credits affirmative action for her own rise to Princeton University despite her Puerto Rican family's limited circumstances, wrote an impassioned dissent.