In a blow to affirmative action, a federal court judge ruled yesterday afternoon that the way in which the University of Michigan law school factors race into its admissions process is unconstitutional.

“Whatever solution the law school elects to pursue, [the goal of achieving a diverse student body] must be race-neutral,” U.S. District Court Judge Bernard Friedman said. “The focus must be upon the merit of individual applicants, not upon characteristics of racial groups.”

The ruling conflicts with another ruling last December by U.S. District Court Judge Patrick Duggan, who ruled that the University of Michigan’s affirmative action policy directed at undergraduates is a constitutionally legal way to achieve diversity. Both the undergraduate and law school decisions in both U.S. District Courts have been appealed, and the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati will be the next court to hear the two Michigan cases. If federal appeals courts also come to conflicting conclusions, the cases could go to the Supreme Court.

Regardless of the outcome of the cases, Yale Law School Dean Kronman said the Michigan cases will probably not have a direct impact on Yale’s admissions policy, particularly the Law School’s policy.

“Our admissions process is quite different from the ones that were of issue in the Michigan cases,” Kronman said. “In those cases, the [admissions] process was more centralized and formalized than anything we’ve had at Yale.”

The legal debate surrounding affirmative action, a policy where the race and background of minority students can be considered in the admissions process, has escalated in the past few years. In 1996, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the University of Texas Law School’s affirmative action policy, while the University of Washington Law School’s was upheld by the 9th Circuit last year.

Kronman said the Michigan cases could bring affirmative action back into the national spotlight, especially if the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision conflicts with the 5th Circuit Court or 9th Circuit Court decisions. He said if that happens, the U.S. Supreme Court could take the case.

“Then that case will be the focal point for our debate on affirmative action in higher education,” Kronman said.

Though Kronman said he had not yet read the judge’s opinion and had based his thoughts on an Associated Press article, he summed up the central question now faced by the 6th District Appeals Court.

“Is it constitutionally permissible for a college to take race into account in the making of its [admissions] decisions [solely in order] to produce a diverse student body — which the institution insists is necessary in the accomplishment of its educational goals?” Kronman said.

Yale College includes affirmative action in its admissions policy, Director of Undergraduate Admissions Margit Dahl said.

“Race is one among many factors in the admissions process,” Dahl said. “All of those who are self-described minority as defined by university policy have extra consideration given to them in the admissions process.”

But Yale President Richard Levin said Yale’s policy is not particularly vulnerable to losing a lawsuit.

“The law allows more independence of action as a private institution,” Levin said. “Secondly, we don’t use discriminatory criteria that are simple-minded or based on a fixed quantitative formula.”

The University of Michigan has more rigid admissions processes, based on a points system. Currently, black and Hispanic undergraduate applicants are given a 20-point boost on a 150-point scale.

Asian-Americans, Native Americans, African-Americans, Puerto Ricans and Hispanics are classified as minorities at Yale.

Yale Law School’s admissions policy requires each application to be examined by one administrator, either deputy dean James Thomas or admissions director Jean Webb, and then two or three faculty members.

The Yale Law School policy permits, but does not require, faculty members to include race as a factor. Because the admissions process is subject to the views of individual faculty members, their particular views on affirmative action could play a role in how much weight race and background receives in an application, Webb confirmed.

— The Associated Press contributed to this story