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Minority legal association passed measure last year saying law schools should require documentation for Native American claims

A group of influential minority legal associations passed a resolution last year calling on law schools to require “sufficient documentation of Native American citizenship” from law school applicants to prevent “academic ethnic fraud.”

The resolution signed on July 2011 by the Coalition of Bar Associations of Color faults the practice known as “box checking,” and says law schools perpetuate the problem because they do not want their minority enrollment numbers to decline.

The issue has become a heated topic in the Massachusetts Senate race, as Republicans have questioned why Harvard Law School at one time promoted Elizabeth Warren’s Native American ancestry in the Harvard Crimson newspaper when it was under fire for a lack of diversity in its faculty.


Warren, a Democrat trying to unseat US Senator Scott Brown, has said she was unaware that the law school was promoting her heritage, but she also said that she has long traced some Native American lineage through family stories.

She had never documented the heritage, but did list herself as a minority between 1986 and 1995 in the Association of American Law Schools desk book, a common reference for professors.

The Globe reported today that a genealogist has found some limited evidence linking her to the Cherokee Tribe, a great-great-great grandmother. But she has never enrolled in the Cherokee Nation, and the evidence gathered so far suggests she would not have qualified, though genealogists caution that more records could yet be unearthed.

There is no evidence that Warren was hired at Harvard or her previous law school jobs based on her ancestry. The Warren campaign released a series of statements last night from professors and deans who served on committees that hired Warren at several universities, each attesting that her Native American heritage was not a factor in her hiring.


“Her appointment was based on the excellence of her scholarship and teaching,” said Stephen Burbank, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, who helped recruit Warren to the law school, where she taught from 1987 and 1995. “I do not know whether members of the faculty were even aware of her ancestry, but I am confident that it played no role whatsoever in her appointment.’’

Last year’s resolution against academic ethnic fraud -- signed by presidents of national Hispanic, Asian, African American and Native American bar associations -- calls on the law schools to accept the Native American designation only from enrolled members of a tribe.


Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.