He took on the Voting Rights Act and won. Now he’s taking on Harvard
SOUTH THOMASTON, Maine — A former mayor of Poway, a small city in Southern California, wrote a column in August in his local newspaper with this headline: “A gun to my head.”
He was upset about how a state law had forced Poway to redo its voting districts so Latinos would have a better chance of winning elections.
Reading the piece on his computer 3,000 miles away, Edward Blum knew he had found his newest case.
Seeing one of his bêtes noires — racial gerrymandering — at work, Blum recruited the former mayor, Don Higginson, as a plaintiff, and on Oct. 4 filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the California Voting Rights Act.
Blum is not a lawyer. But he is a one-man legal factory with a growing record of finding plaintiffs who match his causes, winning big victories and trying above all to erase racial preferences from American life.
Blum, 65, has orchestrated more than two dozen lawsuits challenging affirmative action practices and voting rights laws across the country. He is behind two of the biggest such cases to reach the Supreme Court: one attacking consideration of race in admissions at the University of Texas, which he lost; the other contesting parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, widely considered one of this country’s most important pieces of civil rights legislation, which he won.
Now, in his most high-profile cause of the moment, he has asserted that Harvard University’s affirmative action policies amount to an illegal quota system that denies high-achieving Asian-American students admission in numbers commensurate with their qualifications. He has forced Harvard to turn over, under court seal, years of highly sensitive data about demographics, test scores and even some personal essays, and he now has a powerful ally in the Justice Department, which is looking into a similar complaint.
Blum said he was acting on a pure principle — that people should never be judged by the color of their skin.
“Most Americans don’t want race to be part of your application to college,” he said. “They don’t want the police to use race as a profiling tool to prevent crime. They don’t want prosecutors to use race in the makeup of a jury. Your race and your ethnicity should not be something used to help you or harm you in your life’s endeavors.” How a financial adviser without a law degree has managed to bring so many cases that make, as he calls it, “big law,” is a testament to his methods. He is a matchmaker bringing together two forces: students and others who believe they are being mistreated in the name of racial justice, and conservative donors who finance his work and that of the high-powered, establishment Republican lawyers who take the cases to court.
In the current environment, Blum has been called many things, including a courageous man of the moment willing to take on entrenched, politically correct policies, and a tool of rich conservatives trying to extinguish efforts to help historically oppressed minorities overcome the long shadow of racism.
In most of his cases, Blum either sues under the name of his own organizations, or he recruits plaintiffs to challenge racial policies he thinks are unfair. Although he claims to have 22,000 members in his group Students for Fair Admissions, the plaintiff in lawsuits against Harvard and other colleges, Harvard says in court papers that he is a gadfly whose organization is nothing but his “alter ego.”
Rachel Kleinman, senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said Blum’s opposition to affirmative action was related to “this fear of white people that their privilege is being taken away from them and given to somebody else who they see as less deserving.”
Pointing to his own upbringing and the anti-Semitism his family experienced in the South in the 1950s and ‘60s, when his father was a traveling salesman and some hotels did not accept Jewish guests, Blum said such criticism missed the mark.
He recalled living in Orlando, Florida, when his family’s synagogue received a bomb threat and the congregation asked a neighboring church to join it in forming a citizen patrol. The church refused — until, Blum said, his father called a bomb threat to the church.
“I seem to come from a line of compulsive people who believe in certain things and just don’t let go of them easily,” he said, smiling.
A victory inspired by a loss
His first lawsuit was a product of personal experience. Blum (pronounced Bloom) ran for Congress in Houston as a Republican in 1992, and lost. What bothered him most, he said, was the district’s tortured shape, designed to make it easier for a minority candidate to win the seat. He filed a case claiming racial gerrymandering and nursed it to the Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor in 1996. He began to file similar suits in other states.
That effort culminated in a challenge to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, in particular to the law’s requirement that states and localities with a history of voting discrimination get permission from federal authorities before altering voting laws — “pre-clearance.” Blum began searching the web for localities that had recently come under Justice Department scrutiny, and then cold-called Frank Ellis, county attorney of Shelby County, Alabama.
Ellis was wary at first of Blum, but not of his cause. “We vetted him as best we could,” Ellis said, and ultimately agreed to file a suit.
In 1965, Ellis said, the county had a reading and writing test devised to keep blacks from voting. “There was no question there was something legitimate” about the federal supervision, he said.
“But in the last 20 years or so before we filed this suit, it became obvious to me that it was no longer justified,” he continued. “We were having to spend pretty large amounts of taxpayer money that could have gone to something like schools on getting pre-clearance from the Justice Department.”
By a 5-4 vote in 2013, in Shelby County vs. Holder, the court struck down only one of two related provisions, but the outcome was the same — no more pre-clearance.
Critics say the ruling accelerated a move toward throwing up voting barriers that had begun in reaction to the Obama presidency. Blum said that while he had concerns about this happening, there were remedies, because such barriers could still be challenged in court, and “all states, counties and cities are now on equal terms.”
In the Texas affirmative action case, he told a friend that he was looking for a white applicant to the University of Texas at Austin, his own alma mater, to challenge its admissions criteria. The friend passed the word to his daughter, Abigail Fisher. About six months later, the university rejected Fisher’s application.
“I immediately said, ‘Hey, can we call Edward?’” she recalled in an interview.
The case went to the Supreme Court twice, and though Fisher was portrayed as a less than stellar student, vilified as supporting a racist agenda, and ultimately lost, she said she still believed in Blum. “I think we started a conversation,” she said. “Edward obviously is not going to just lie down and play dead.”
Big donors, elite lawyers
For much of the year, Blum works out of a gray-shingle house in South Thomaston, Maine, overlooking Penobscot Bay, in a stark landscape famously painted by Andrew Wyeth. He has a consulting business analyzing esoteric municipal bonds for a handful of wealthy families.
But hiring lawyers for his kind of litigation takes a lot of money, and Blum has found it.
The DonorsTrust, which distributes money from conservative and libertarian contributors to various causes, and nonprofits related to DonorsTrust gave almost $2.9 million to support Blum’s work from 2010-15, said Lawson R. Bader, the trust’s president, citing the most recent publicly available figures.
Most of that money came from the Searle Freedom Trust, according to tax records and Kimberly O. Dennis, president and chief executive of the trust, which was founded by Daniel C. Searle of the Searle pharmaceutical company.
The goals of the Searle trust, as stated on its website, are to create “an environment that promotes individual freedom and economic liberties, while encouraging personal responsibilities and a respect for traditional American values.” The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, another small-government group, gave $100,000 to the DonorsTrust for Blum’s causes in 2014 and $50,000 in 2012, tax records show. For Blum’s first suit, the racial gerrymandering case in 1993, he hired a real estate lawyer who agreed to represent him for six months for $7,000, Blum recalled. But when the case went to the Supreme Court, he knew he needed a Washington lawyer, and found a rising young lawyer willing to take it for nothing at the prestigious Wiley Rein law firm.
Since then, Wiley Rein has been practically his house counsel. Fisher and Shelby were argued by Bert Rein, an antitrust and commercial litigator who was a State Department appointee in the Nixon administration. Rein described Blum as a client like any other, but one who believed in legal activism, and said his cases were not done pro bono but for a fee, which may be negotiable. “We are not a ‘cause’ law firm,” Rein said. (In some cases Blum has won, his side has been able to recoup legal fees from the losing side.)
The Harvard case is being argued by William Consovoy, a younger partner who recently split away. He clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas, whom he has called “my hero.”
Some civil rights activists think that in suing Harvard, Blum is picking the wrong fight. Armand Derfner, a civil rights lawyer and constitutional law scholar in residence at the Charleston School of Law in South Carolina, said admission to the Ivy League was arbitrary for reasons that had little to do with race.
Derfner said he had sensed discrimination against him as a Jew when he applied for jobs at Wall Street firms or socially when he was in college, and could sympathize with the arguments that Asians should not be held back. But he said he doubted that was what was motivating Blum. “The lesson he’s spreading is that the problem in our society is that blacks have it too good and whites are getting screwed, and that’s a heck of a lesson in this society,” he said.
Harvard denies using quotas. But Robert Iuliano, the university’s general counsel, said that a diverse student body was essential to teaching students how to function in “an increasingly interconnected world.”
Blum scored a significant victory when a federal judge required Harvard to release six years of admissions data to experts who submitted their analysis, under seal, to the court last month. He is also trying to get similar data from Princeton University released. Ultimately, he expects the judge to open the Harvard data to the public.
“These Ivy League schools will go to the trenches to prevent disclosure of what they are doing,” Blum said.