Law's new icon: Cheryl Hopwood

She fought affirmative action at the University of Texas — and won

By Paul Burka

Texas Monthly, November 30, 1999

NEVER DID GET TO TALK to Cheryl Hopwood. On the day that I was supposed to meet her in Washington, D.C., she had to go to a hospital for some tests. I then arranged to speak with her by phone, but her lawyers at the Center for Individual Rights (“Bringing lawsuits for a better America,” says the recorded message that greets callers) canceled our interview because no one was available to listen in on the conversation. It was disappointing, but in a way I already knew everything I needed to know about Cheryl Hopwood: Now 33, she lived in suburban San Antonio for a brief time, she applied to the University of Texas law school in 1992, she was turned down despite having better grades and test scores than many minority students who were admitted, and she changed the world. Like Bakke, like Brown, like Miranda, she has evolved from a person into a one-word legal principle. The Hopwood case — officially, it’s Cheryl J. Hopwood v. The State of Texas — stands for the end of affirmative action at UT and a change in college admissions procedures across America.

She was the perfect plaintiff to question the fairness of reverse discrimination. If anyone ever deserved the kind of special break that affirmative action provides, it was Cheryl Hopwood. She was admitted to Princeton University as an undergraduate but couldn’t afford to attend because she had to pay for her own education. Instead, she spent four years at a community college in Pennsylvania, working part time, and then moved to California, where she attended community college and California State University at Sacramento. She graduated with a 3.8 grade point average while working twenty to thirty hours a week and still found time to be active in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. She became a certified public accountant and took care of a severely handicapped baby daughter who was born with a rare muscular disease. (The daughter died last November.) Her test scores were high enough to put her in the top tier of candidates for admission to UT, but a university official discounted her grades because she had not attended an academically competitive school. When an Austin lawyer named Steven W. Smith sent out letters to 31 white students who had been rejected by UT, suggesting that they might be able to win a lawsuit, Hopwood was one of nine who responded.

In theory the Hopwood decision applies only to Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, the jurisdiction of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court elected not to consider UT’s appeal of the circuit court’s ruling that “[The] law school has presented no compelling justification, under the Fourteenth Amendment or Supreme Court precedent, that allows it to continue to elevate some races over others, even for the wholesome purposes of correcting perceived racial imbalance in the student body.” In practice, however, universities all over America will rely less on test scores and grades and more on subjective factors like overcoming hardships. That way, they will be able to continue to admit minorities — but they will also find a place for people like Cheryl Hopwood.