Michigan Law School Prepares for Historic Affirmative Action Trial
By Erik Lords
When an affirmative action lawsuit against the University of Michigan’s law school goes to trial here this month, it will be thick with historical significance.
Lawyers for a group of intervening minority students in the case will present an unprecedented legal argument, and they will call to the witness stand a “dream team” of some of America’s foremost experts, scholars and historians to testify on behalf of affirmative action.
The intervenors — a group of 58 individuals — mostly minority students at Michigan — won the right to enter the case in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati last year (see Black Issues, Dec. 7). Their argument differs from the university’s stance that affirmative action is necessary to ensure a diverse student body.
They will describe for the first time in court how the criteria for admission — including grades and the law school admissions test — discriminate against minority students. They will also link deficiencies at K-12 schools to law school admissions, another first, legal experts say.
“This is a tremendous victory because for the first time the basic question of equality regarding law schools will be front and center,” says Miranda Massie, a Detroit lawyer for the intervening students. “The racism of the basic admissions criteria will be exposed.”
Agnes Aleobua, 19, a current Michigan student and witness in the case, graduated from Cass Technical High School in Detroit. The school is one of the city’s better public schools, but is located in one of its worst neighborhoods. She says she welcomes the opportunity to share her story with the court.
“I will have an opportunity to testify about being a beneficiary of affirmative action,” she told the Detroit Free Press. “There were rats and roaches at Cass Tech, shortages of teachers and a lack of textbooks. Without a trial, I could not register the inequalities in the K-12 educational process and the racism at U-M.”
Legal experts say the intervenors’ presence gives Michigan a potent 1-2 punch in the case.
“It gives the court another legal ground on which to decide the case in favor of the university,” says Susan Low Bloch, a law professor at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington. “I don’t think the discrimination argument detracts at all from the diversity argument.”
The intervenors’ argument comes at a time when law school officials around the nation are being urged by the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) to expand their core admissions criteria to develop a more diverse pool of applicants.
Trial to Decide Three Issues
In a packed courtroom last month, U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman heard arguments from all three sides in the case and said that he ordered the trial for three reasons: to determine how much weight the law school gives to an applicant’s race; to see if the law school uses a double standard for minority and White students; and to decide whether race should be considered to offset cultural bias inherent in the standardized test scores and grades of minority students.
Friedman’s decision came nine days after U-Michigan won a major decision that might have lasting impact on affirmative action policies in higher education nationwide. U.S. District Judge Patrick Duggan ruled that Michigan’s undergraduate admissions policy, which also takes race into account, is legal, but he also ruled that the undergraduate policy used from 1995-98, which set aside seats for minority students, was unconstitutional.
Both suits against U-M were originally filed in 1997 by three White students. Robert Sedler, a constitutional law professor and expert on affirmative action policies at Wayne State University, says that the law school case could end up being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Star Witnesses to Testify
Massie says that student testimony will be bolstered by nearly a dozen high-profile expert witnesses who will visit Detroit to testify about the need for affirmative action including: John Hope Franklin, professor emeritus of history at Duke University and chair of the of the Advisory Board to the President Clinton’s Initiative on Race; Stephanie Wildman, director of the Center for Social Justice at the Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California at Berkeley; Willie Brown, mayor of San Francisco and former speaker of the California State Assembly; and Gary Orfield, professor of education at Harvard University and director of the Harvard’s Civil Rights Project.
The plaintiffs — represented by the Center for Individual Rights, a Washington-based law group — will counter with their own researchers and experts.
CIR represents the three White students who are suing Michigan’s undergraduate college of Arts and Sciences and its law school. The plaintiff in the law school suit, Barbara Grutter, 47, sued three years ago claiming that she was denied admission so that less-qualified minority applicants could be admitted. Her lawyers argue that two systems for admission exist in the law school — one for certain minority groups and one for White students.
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