AUSTIN, Texas -- From Cheryl J. Hopwood's point of view, if overcoming past hardship was counted as a plus when applying to the University of Texas Law School, she should have been among the more qualified candidates.
Ms. Hopwood's father died when she was young, and she was raised under difficult circumstances by her mother. She worked all through high school, and put herself through college, graduating with high grades from California State University at Sacramento.
Then, having become a Texas resident, she did well enough on the law school admissions test to get into a category of law school applicant that is almost automatically admitted at Texas.
But Cheryl Hopwood was not admitted, and she believes the reason is that she is white. That has put her at the center of a lawsuit against the University of Texas that, if she wins, could make it far more difficult for universities nationwide to follow the affirmative-action policies that have guided them for two decades.
A decision in the matter is expected in the next few days, certainly weeks.
"The Texas approach to affirmative action is in the mainstream of the approach used by law schools and other schools throughout the country," said Harry Reasoner, a lawyer for the university. "That would be put at risk if this were formally condemned by the court and no alternatives are offered."
The suit brought by Ms. Hopwood and three other plaintiffs is being widely compared to a landmark case of 16 years ago, Bakke vs. Regents of the University of California.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, required that Allan P. Bakke be admitted to medical school, ruling that the school violated his rights when it rejected him on the grounds that he was white.
The court endorsed affirmative action in the Bakke case, saying that race can be a factor in admissions to redress past racial injustice but not the sole factor.
Ms. Hopwood has argued that in setting up admissions targets for black and Mexican-American applicants, the university uses race and ethnicity as the sole and all-important criteria for admission and thus violates her right to equal treatment.
"Race should just not be a determining factor in admissions policy at the level of law school," she said in a recent telephone interview from her home in San Antonio. "At that level I'm competing with others who have B.A. degrees, and they're not people who necessarily have more disadvantaged backgrounds than I have."
The case, argued last month before Judge Sam Sparks in U.S. District Court in Austin, offered an unusually candid look at the admissions process used by a major law school.
Called by the plaintiffs as hostile witnesses, university officials said that the institution sets aside roughly 15 percent of its law school seats for blacks and Mexican-Americans, who are admitted under different criteria from all other students, including other minority students.
The Texas system, portrayed as a discriminatory quota by the plaintiffs, was defended by the university on several grounds, among them that race is only one factor among many considered by the admissions panel and that since the Texas affirmative-action program is "narrowly tailored" to remedy the effects of pastbias, it is permitted by the high court's ruling in the Bakke case.
Judge Sparks must consider whether the university discriminates so avidly in favor of blacks and Mexican-Americans that the rights of whites are being violated.
Witnesses testified during the trial, for example, that virtually every black and Mexican-American student admitted to the law school is given a scholarship, without regard for financial need.
As a result, said Terral R. Smith, a lawyer for the plaintiffs: "The university is not helping poor black people with affirmative action. It is denying people like Hopwood and giving special privileges to upper-middle-class black people and Mexican-Americans."