Pro Bono Goes to the Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court began a new term Monday and its docket is full of especially weighty issues.

On October 10, the Court will hear oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, a significant challenge to the use of affirmative action in higher education, and one in which we at The PBEye are particularly interested because of its significant draw of pro bono work.  Abigail Fisher, a white student who was denied admission, challenged the University of Texas’s admission policy as unconstitutional, arguing that the Court should overrule its opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), which held that race can play a limited role in college admissions decisions.  Texas uses multiple factors, including community service, work experience, extracurricular activities, awards, and race to fill the last 20 to 25 percent of the spots in its freshman classes, for those who are not admitted automatically under the Texas Top Ten Percent Law.

Many law firms and lawyers are providing pro bono representation to public interest and civil rights organizations, educators and student organizations, former military leaders, and others in the case.  Here are several firms, among others, which have filed amicus briefs in this high-profile case:

  • Debevoise & Plimpton LLP* filed a brief on behalf of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and the League of Women Voters of the United States, urging the Court to recognize that diversity in higher education is crucial for the success of our multi-racial democracy.
  • Kirkland & Ellis*† and Greenberg Traurig, P.A.† represented 37 top former military leaders from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and the Marines, who support the position of the University of Texas and note that the outcome of the case could affect racial and ethnic diversity in the military’s officer corps and hence the military’s effectiveness as an institution.
  • McDermott Will & Emery*† is pro bono counsel to the family of Heman Sweatt, one of the nation’s civil rights pioneers.  McDermott worked with members of the Sweatt family to express their strong support for the University of Texas’s admission policy.  One of the brief’s authors noted that “[i]n filing this brief, we have done our best to honor the legacy of Heman Sweatt by supporting UT’s commitment to creating and cultivating a diverse student body and by considering race only in the context of applicant’s whole character and life experiences.”
  • Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP*†, in collaboration with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, filed a brief on behalf of 28 University of California student organizations, emphasizing the importance of campus diversity.  In urging the Court to continue to allow university administrators to use race as one of many factors in admissions, they highlight the dramatic decline in racial diversity at the University of California in the 17 years following the passage of Proposition 209, the 1996 state constitutional amendment interpreted by the University of California to prohibit the consideration of race, ethnicity, or gender in public education.
  • Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati*†, the Equal Justice Society, and the Haas Diversity Research Center at the University of California, wrote an amicus brief on behalf of 12 of the nation’s leading social scientists.  The brief contains research offering a deeper understanding of how a diverse educational environment benefits all students and society as a whole.  It also cites studies showing race-conscious admissions policies like that used by the University of Texas result in a more diverse student body, which is essential to producing leaders able to compete in the 21st century global marketplace.

A lot of firms are involved in pro bono work related to cases before the Supreme Court this term—is yours?  Leave us a comment and tell us about it.

* denotes a Signatory to the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge®
† denotes a Member of the Law Firm Pro Bono Project