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A wise, affirmative ruling

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When judges look for middle ground in a case and offer a little something to both sides, it's called "splitting the baby." The reference, of course, is to wise King Solomon and his prudent decision to threaten to sever a baby as a ploy for arriving at the truth. What's often forgotten, of course, is that Solomon never actually did split the baby. And if he had, it would have been regarded as one of the most wrong-headed judicial rulings in history.

That said, it should also be noted that the recent Supreme Court decision to "split the baby" on affirmative action — that is, to allow racial preferences in college admissions but to rein them in and limit their scope — was a good piece of jurisprudence.

In two cases involving the University of Michigan, the justices ruled that the school could, indeed, factor in an applicant's race when choosing future students. However, schools could not use quotas or assign any overt, weighted value to a person's race.

The first ruling was simply a nod to common sense and common practice. Schools constantly select students for reasons that never show up on a grade transcript. An applicant to Yale named "Bush," for instance, is going to stand a better chance of getting in than a similar applicant named "Brush."

Such is the way the world works. And the justices were only acknowledging that fact.

On the other hand, giving "points" to an applicant because of his or her race undermines notions of equality under the law. Conceivably, a school could award all blondes an "A" in "hair color," while knocking all redheads down to a "D." Grading innate traits on a numerical scale is degrading. It codifies the worst kind of racism and opens the door for abuse.

Of course, the Supreme Court doesn't always come down on the side of the angels. One remembers too well historic rulings regarding "separate but equal" schools or an even earlier one concerning a slave by the name of Dred Scott. Still, the court does tend to get things right at least as often as its two sister branches of government.

In the two Michigan cases, by affirming affirmative action while limiting the way it can be applied, the court "split a baby" and made good law.

Now, how schools apply those rulings will determine if they are good citizens.