Conservative activist steers U.S. Supreme Court college race cases

  • Edward Blum engineered cases against Harvard, UNC
  • Arguments set for Monday; ruling due by end of June

Oct 27 (Reuters) - When the U.S. Supreme Court next week considers ending policies used by many colleges and universities to increase their numbers of Black and Hispanic students, a conservative activist will be on hand to watch this fateful moment in his long quest to erase racial preferences intended to boost diversity in American life.

The challenges to race-conscious admissions policies used by Harvard University and the University of North Carolina were brought by a group called Students for Fair Admissions founded and headed by Edward Blum, a 70-year-old former stockbroker and unsuccessful Republican congressional candidate.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in the two cases on Monday, with rulings due by the end of June. The litigation gives its 6-3 conservative majority another chance to issue blockbuster decisions after rulings four months ago overturning abortion rights and expanding gun rights.

The conservative justices - Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett - are expected to be receptive to arguments Blum has honed against affirmative action policies, crafted as a remedy to discrimination. As such, Blum may be on the verge of a huge legal victory as he fights race-based policies not only in higher education but in areas such as elections and diversity in corporate America.

"I'm a one-trick pony," Blum said in an interview. "I hope and care about ending these racial classifications and preferences in our public policy."

Blum, who is white, has cast his mission as one aimed at creating a colorblind society.

"An individual's race or ethnicity should not be used to help them or harm them in their life's endeavors," Blum said.

His critics paint his work as a war on racial equity aimed at undercutting policies designed to help non-white Americans overcome racial obstacles persisting in U.S. life.

"He's made it harder for corporations, boards and governments to make racial diversity an explicit goal," said Kristin Penner, a co-founder of a group called the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard that supports affirmative action. "And thus people of color continue to be blocked out of positions of power."

Blum's goal is for the Supreme Court to overturn its own precedents allowing race as a factor in admissions.

Blum lost in a previous case challenging race-conscious student admissions when the court ruled 4-3 in 2016 against a white woman he recruited as a plaintiff suing the University of Texas after being denied admission. Conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy provided the crucial vote. The court has moved rightward since then. Kennedy himself retired in 2018.

With Monday's arguments, the court will have taken up eight race-related cases engineered by Blum. For instance, a Blum-backed challenge led to a 2013 Supreme Court ruling gutting a central part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that had forced nine states, mainly in the South, to obtain federal approval for voting rules changes affecting Black and other minority voters.

In addition, Blum last year launched a group called the Alliance For Fair Board Recruitment and filed lawsuits challenging Nasdaq rules and California laws mandating gender and racial diversity on corporate boards.

A 1978 LANDMARK

From his home in South Thomaston, Maine, Blum has orchestrated a 14-year legal campaign to challenge affirmative action in college and university admissions.

The Supreme Court first upheld such affirmative action in a landmark 1978 ruling in a case called Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, holding that race could be considered as one of several factors, along with academic and extracurricular criteria, but racial quotas were prohibited. The court reaffirmed that stance in 2003.

Blum in 2008 recruited Abigail Fisher, the daughter of an old friend, and through his first group, the Project for Fair Representation, helped fund her University of Texas suit that yielded the 2016 ruling he called a "grave disappointment."

By then, Blum had shifted gears to the next generation of cases, forming Students for Fair Admissions in 2014 and turning his attention to Harvard and UNC. Those lawsuits accused UNC of discriminating against white and Asian American applicants and Harvard of discriminating against Asian Americans.

Boston University School of Law professor Jonathan Feingold said Blum was "transparent" in saying he needed Asian American plaintiffs this time around to sue the universities, allowing him to "spin a narrative that affirmative action is pitting students of color against one another."

Blum raised more than $8 million from 2015 to 2020 for Students for Fair Admissions, most going to covering legal fees. Big checks came from conservative supporters including DonorsTrust and Searle Freedom Trust. Blum said 5,000 smaller donors also contributed.

Students for Fair Admissions has said it boasts 20,000 members. Its critics said it is not a true membership association at all. No Students for Fair Admissions members served as plaintiffs or testified in court in the Harvard and UNC cases as the group lost in lower courts. The Supreme Court in January agreed to hear appeals backed by Blum in both cases.

The Harvard lawsuit accused the university of violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination based on race, color or national origin under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

The UNC lawsuit accused that university of violating the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law. Blum and his supporters argue that the 14th Amendment bars government entities including public universities like UNC from treating people differently due to race.

"His efforts and broader project are paying off because now because you have a court that is very receptive to the specific arguments that are being made here," Feingold said.

For Blum, potential victories over Harvard and UNC may not be the final word in the fight against racial preferences in student admissions.

"It might be the beginning of the end," Blum said. "More likely, it's probably the end of the beginning."

Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Will Dunham

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Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at nate.raymond@thomsonreuters.com.