The US Supreme Court narrowly
voted in favour of affirmative
action

The first case on "affirmative action" in 25 years – was brought by white students who said they had been discriminated against by the University of Michigan law school.

The court ruled by five votes to four that it was legal for the law school to take race into account when deciding entry.

But, in a separate ruling, the court limited the influence that race can play in university undergraduate admissions.

The justices were split six votes to three relating to the system used by the university under which minority candidates are automatically given extra points toward admission.

They said it breached the constitution’s provision on equal protection.

Analysts say the rulings will have a ripple effect on universities and other public institutions across the US.

President George W Bush has already spoken against the Michigan programme.

But Justice Sandra Day O’Connor – who is often considered a swing voter, voted in favour of affirmative action, but against the points system.

"We take the law school at its word that it would 'like nothing better than to find a race neutral admissions formula' and will terminate its race-conscious admissions programme as soon as practicable," she said.

Justice O’Connor also added that she believed the use of racial preferences would no longer be necessary 25 years from now.

The close vote saw Justice Clarence Thomas, a black conservative, vote against affirmative action.

He said: "I believe that the law school's current use of race violates the equal protection clause and that the constitution means the same thing today as it will in 300 months."

Thomas went on: "The constitution abhors classifications based on race, not only because those classifications can harm favoured races or are based on illegitimate motives but also because every time the government places citizens on racial registers and makes race relevent to the provision of burdens or benefits, it demeans us all."