A group founded by the conservative activist who led the successful U.S. Supreme Court challenge to the consideration of race in college admissions sued two major U.S. law firms over fellowships they offer to promote diversity.
The American Alliance for Equal Rights sued Perkins Coie in Dallas and Morrison & Foerster in Miami two months after the Supreme Court sided with another group founded by activist Edward Blum and rejected affirmative action policies used by many colleges to increase enrollment of racial minorities.
The federal lawsuits accused both law firms of unlawfully discriminating against white candidates by limiting which law students could be considered for paid fellowships designed in part to help support the recruitment of people of color.
"Excluding students from these esteemed fellowships because they are the wrong race is unfair, polarizing and illegal," Blum, who is white, said in a statement.
The lawsuits suggest a reckoning may be on the way for firms that pursue discriminatory policies in the wake of the Supreme Court's affirmative action ruling. The Washington Free Beacon reported last month that discriminatory fellowships and programs, which companies often establish on the basis of elite law firms' "civil rights" advice, are now prime targets for legal scrutiny.
These programs "are lawsuits waiting to happen," Noah Peters, the former solicitor of the Federal Labor Relations Authority, told the Free Beacon.
Law schools are also gearing up for a fight over their policies to boost diversity. Top law school administrators from the University of California Berkeley and the University of Michigan last month huddled to discuss how to protect those programs from affirmative action law. They suggested schools take steps to avoid creating a "record" of "discriminatory intent."
In an apparent effort to determine applicants' race without explicitly asking them, Columbia Law School last month announced prospective students must submit a 90-second "video statement" with their application. The law school backtracked after the Free Beacon reached out for comment, however, saying the rule was a misunderstanding.
A Perkins Coie spokesperson in a statement said it would defend itself, saying its commitment to promoting diversity, equity and inclusion in the legal profession was "steadfast." Morrison & Foerster did not respond to requests for comment.
The lawsuits came amid an uptick in legal challenges to corporate diversity programs since the High Court's ruling, with companies including Activision Blizzard, Kellogg and Gannett now facing complaints.
Perkins Coie, founded in Seattle, offers "diversity fellowships" that provide stipends of $15,000 to $25,000 and paid positions as summer associates, a position that at major law firms can lead to full-time jobs with six-figure salaries.
Applicants must belong to "a group historically underrepresented in the legal profession, including students of color, students who identify as LGBTQ+, and students with disabilities," according to Perkins Coie, which employs more than 1,200 lawyers in the United States and Asia.
Morrison & Foerster, a corporate law firm founded in San Francisco that has more than 1,000 lawyers worldwide, has a similar program that is open to applicants who are Black, Hispanic, Native American or members of the LGBT community.
The fellowship consists of a paid summer-associate position and a $50,000 stipend.
The lawsuits allege that by limiting eligibility based on race, the fellowships violate Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, a federal law adopted after the end of slavery brought about by the American Civil War that bars racial bias in private contracts.
Blum's Texas-based American Alliance for Equal Rights this month filed a similar case against Atlanta-based venture capital fund Fearless Fund, alleging it unlawfully allowed only Black women to be eligible in a grant competition in violation of the contracting law.
(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Will Dunham, Alexia Garamfalvi and Alistair Bell)