Albuquerque Journal, Friday, February 14, 2003

Race a Factor at UNM Law School

By Olivier Uyttebrouck

New Mexico's only law school could be forced to stop considering an applicant's ethnic background if U.S. Supreme Court justices rule against a Michigan school with a similar admissions process.

University of New Mexico's law school policy "would have to be redrafted to eliminate any reference to the race and ethnicity of the student," said Suellyn Scarnecchia, dean of the UNM School of Law.

Scarnecchia took over as dean last month after serving on the University of Michigan law school faculty since 1987.

Like their counterparts at Michigan, UNM law school officials can consider an applicant's ethnic background during the admissions process, she said.

The UNM policy, written in 1996, directs the admissions committee to consider an applicant's life experiences, "including those related to ethnicity and national origin." This year, minorities make up 34 percent of UNM's 324 law students. Scarnecchia said that figure likely would decline if the school's five-member admissions committee was forbidden from considering ethnicity.

"I don't think we're at a place where if we don't look at race and ethnicity, we'll end up with a balanced class," she said.

The committee has no target for ethnic representation, but the state's ethnic makeup offers a guide, said David Gonzales, a law professor and chairman of the admissions committee. Data from the 2000 census showed that New Mexico's population was 44.7 percent Anglo; 42.1 percent Hispanic; 9.5 percent American Indian; 1.9 percent black; and 1.1 percent Asian. "We have a sense that we would like our student body to reflect, in every way we can, the state of New Mexico," Gonzales said.

UNM's law school typically considers about 700 applications a year but enrolls only up to 110 first-year students each fall.

Gonzales said ethnicity is only one of many factors considered. Others are undergraduate grades, scores on the Law School Admissions Test, work experience, letters of recommendation and personal essays, he said.
Each committee member scores an applicant on a scale of one to four, with one being the most qualified, Gonzales said. Committee members then add their total scores and compare the results.

"What we try to do is evaluate every applicant individually," Gonzales said. "And one of the factors of an individual's profile is his or her ethnicity."

The committee consists of three faculty members, the school's director of admissions and a law student.

The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled in April to begin hearing two Michigan lawsuits. One challenges the University of Michigan's undergraduate admissions policy, which uses a 150-point system to cull applicants. It awards up to 20 points to those from underrepresented minorities. The other lawsuit challenges the admissions policy at the university's law school. The law school does not use a point system but allows admissions officials to consider an applicant's ethnic background.

A Michigan law school administrator defended the school's policy this week at a forum at the UNM School of Law. Michigan's policy has not diluted the quality of law students, said Charlotte Johnson, the law school's assistant dean. "Every person that we admit is highly qualified," she said.

Affirmative action opponent David Rogers responded that race-based admission policies amount to "racial bean-counting" and violate the constitutional prohibition on racial discrimination.

"It's time to set aside these ugly policies, and the division that results from them," Rogers said.

Rogers and others sued the University of Texas School of Law in 1996, alleging they were barred from the school in favor of less-qualified minorities. The lawsuit led to a ban on race-based admission policies in Texas colleges.

Copyright 2003 Albuquerque Journal