July 9, 2015 / 8:30 PM / 4 years ago

U.S. universities seek to delay lawsuits over Asian-American admissions

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Harvard and the University of North Carolina (UNC) moved this week to delay lawsuits by a conservative group alleging that the schools unfairly limit the number of Asian-American students admitted.

The universities have cited last month’s U.S. Supreme Court decision to revisit a white student’s lawsuit against the University of Texas that claims consideration of an applicant’s race violates the Constitution. The schools say the lawsuits against them should be suspended until the Supreme Court rules on the Texas dispute, likely by June 2016.

The lawsuits, which also challenge race-based admissions, were filed in November 2014 in Boston and Greensboro, North Carolina, by a group called Students for Fair Admissions, run by conservative advocate Edward Blum.

For decades, U.S. colleges and universities have adopted policies known as “affirmative action,” in which admissions officers use race as one of many screening criteria to bring greater racial diversity to campus. Some white students, and now Asian Americans, contend such policies discriminate against them. Students for Fair Admissions says Asian Americans are held to a higher standard to restrict their numbers.

Harvard and UNC deny any discrimination and say their practices are based on decades-old Supreme Court precedent. The Blum challengers want to overturn that 1978 precedent, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, which forbade quotas but permitted colleges to use race as one factor among many to obtain a diverse class. That ruling has primarily benefited blacks and Hispanics.

The three cases, all initiated by Blum and his associates, constitute the strongest attack in years on affirmative action, which has survived challenges at the Supreme Court by tight votes. The universities being sued are fighting to maintain such diversity policies. (reut.rs/1EYqyT4)

In their motion this week to stay the proceedings, Harvard and the University of North Carolina contend that a Supreme Court ruling in the University Texas dispute would clarify the “legal framework and standards” for their cases.

Harvard lawyer Seth Waxman said the three cases are “inextricably linked” because they were organized by Blum, who for years has been enlisting plaintiffs to reverse racial practices on campus and in voting rights.

Blum said Thursday that his lawyers will oppose Monday’s filings asking to suspend the cases. He called the moves by the universities an effort to evade court rulings that could end the nationwide use of race in admissions.

The Harvard and North Carolina lawsuits are at an early stage, when parties would be exchanging documents. The plaintiffs want records that would reveal how admissions officers screen and select students.

For the long-running case against the University of Texas, Blum recruited Abigail Fisher, a friend’s daughter, who was rejected in 2008. Her lawsuit claims the school’s policy unconstitutionally favored black and Hispanic applicants with lower test scores.

For the lawsuits on behalf of Asian-American students against Harvard and the University of North Carolina, Blum set up websites encouraging students denied admission to join his cause.

Advocates for African-American and other minority students contend they are the “real targets” of Blum’s efforts and have asked judges to let them join in the two cases. A Boston-based U.S. District Court judge last month rejected their motion to intervene. Lawyers for the minority students are appealing. A separate motion to intervene in the North Carolina case, made on June 29, has yet to be acted on.

Reporting By Joan Biskupic; Editing by David Gregorio

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