The Trump administration threw its weight Friday behind a student group that says Harvard University discriminates against Asian-Americans in its admissions process, urging a federal judge Friday not to keep years' worth of admissions records under wraps.
The move by the Justice Department forecasts the emerging fault lines in what could serve as the first major affirmative action case of the Trump administration.
The fight surrounding the secrecy of the Harvard's competitive admissions process stems from a 2014 lawsuit brought by Students for Fair Admissions, a nonprofit organization that argues race-conscious admissions policies are unconstitutional. The group includes over a dozen students who claim they were rejected from Harvard because the it engages in "racial balancing" by capping the number of Asian-Americans it admits each year.
As part of pre-trial discovery in the case, Students for Fair Admissions obtained a mountain of high school applicant files and detailed information on the inner workings of Harvard's admissions process, much of which it wants to use as evidence as the lawsuit moves ahead. Harvard claims the materials are "highly sensitive" and "highly proprietary," and has asked the judge to shield the records from public view if used in court filings.
The Justice Department has not formally joined the students' current lawsuit in federal court, but has a keen interest in making the admissions data a matter of public record now: the department is embroiled in a parallel case over Harvard's policies as it investigates a similar 2015 complaint filed by a coalition of Asian-American associations.
Justice Department lawyers wrote Friday that the lawsuit "overlaps with the legal and factual bases undergirding the United States' investigation and could directly bear on that investigation."
The department could eventually bring its own lawsuit against Harvard based on its findings, or decide to simply join the students' ongoing case as a "friend of the court."
Harvard has said in a recent statement that its admissions process does not discriminate against anyone and instead, it considers the "whole person."
A court hearing over how the confidentiality of the documents will be treated is scheduled for Tuesday in Boston. Judge Allison D. Burroughs, an Obama appointee, has said she's considering setting a trial date for early next year.
But no matter who wins the current fight over Harvard's records, any further steps by the Justice Department to side with the student group will be closely watched.
Students for Fair Admissions was created by Edward Blum, a well-known conservative legal advocate who gained past notoriety at the Supreme Court by enlisting students to challenge race-conscious admissions policies. Those high-profile lawsuits were typically waged against universities by private plaintiffs without Justice Department intervention, or the department sided with the schools by defending the educational benefits of diversity.