WASHINGTON -- The University of Maryland at College Park was appealing today to the U.S. Supreme Court in a final attempt to save a scholarship program for African-American students.
"We're arguing that the case has implications of national importance," said Andrew Baida, an assistant attorney general representing the university. He said about 45,000 college students receive race-based scholarships nationwide, to help rectify past discrimination. Mr. Baida said that if the justices choose to hear the Benjamin Banneker Scholarship case, it could go before the Supreme Court as early as December.
But Richard Samp, chief counsel for the Washington Legal Foundation and attorney for a Hispanic-American student who sued the university, said odds are against the court's agreeing to hear the case.
The Supreme Court is more likely to consider a case if competing cases exist, but no other race-based scholarship cases have advanced through the U.S. Court of Appeals, he said.
"I'm optimistic in that the Supreme Court hears only one out of 20 cases that come to it," Mr. Samp said.
The case was brought against the university in 1990 by Hispanic-American student Daniel J. Podberesky, who challenged the Banneker program's constitutionality and asserted that it violated his civil rights.
Mr. Podberesky, who graduated last year and now attends the University of Maryland School of Medicine, met the academic qualifications for a Banneker Scholarship, but was ineligible because he is not black.
"All he ever asked for was the right to be considered for a Banneker Scholarship, which he was not because of his race," said Mr. Samp.
Last fall, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the program unconstitutional. It said the university did not prove that the 16-year-old program, which awards full scholarships to between 30 and 40 African-Americans yearly, could remedy past discrimination.
In December, the full appeals court for the 4th District refused to hear the case, leaving the Supreme Court as the university's only appeals option.
The university in January merged the Banneker program with the Francis Scott Key Scholarship program as a temporary measure while the case proceeds.
No scholarships for the 1995-96 school year will be restricted to one race, but the university's long-term goal of racially diversifying the student population will be a consideration, said Leslie Copeland, a university spokeswoman.
"It's counted as a plus factor," she said.
The University of Maryland at College Park began enrolling African-American undergraduates in 1954, Ms. Copeland said.
Now 12.4 percent of the university's 23,000 undergraduates are black, she said. The university's long-term goal for African-American enrollment is to be representative of the black population in the state of Maryland, which is about 20 percent, she said.
University officials are concerned that if the Banneker program is found unconstitutional, African-American enrollment will drop, Ms. Copeland said.
"The university has been committed to this since the beginning," she said. "The program has really helped the university to recruit, retain and graduate African-American students. It has been so successful for us."
Monica Payne, 21, a Banneker scholar from New York, said that if the university loses its appeal, it will be more difficult to recruit African-Americans.
"That's going to look like Maryland doesn't want black students," Payne said.
If the university loses its Supreme Court appeal, Mr. Samp said, Mr. Podberesky could be reimbursed for the approximately $35,000 value of a four-year Banneker Scholarship.