By Peter Im, J.D. ’18
I spent J-term at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law at a federal bench trial about remedying unconstitutional segregation at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in Maryland. During the first week of J-term, I was at the Lawyers’ Committee’s DC office preparing for trial, which started on January 9th. I spent the next two weeks in Baltimore with the trial team. The case was filed in 2006, and litigation has dragged on for the last decade. In 2013, after the first trial, the judge found that the state’s perpetuating segregation at HBCUs violated the Constitution. This trial focused on the issue of remedies.
During the Jim Crow era, Maryland and many Southern states established public HBCUs as the black part of a de jure segregated system. Even after the end of de jure segregation, many states made some efforts to desegregate their white institutions but continued to shortchange their public HBCUs. Several federal lawsuits have addressed these practices, but the Maryland litigation is the first to do so in twenty years. As with desegregation cases and cases that address other systemic inequities in access to educational opportunity, crafting a successful remedy here is daunting. The Supreme Court has held consistently that the remedy must match the scope of the Constitutional violation, but what does this mean when the violation is a century of denying students and schools educational opportunities? And what does integration look like in the higher education setting, given that educating black leaders is a core part of HBCUs’ missions?
To address these thorny questions, the parties presented experts who relied on competing, often irreconcilable social science research. My task at the Lawyers’ Committee was to help prepare our experts to testify about the remedial proposal that they had prepared. Like in any complex litigation, the questions I worked on sometimes seemed distant from the main issues in the case. The experts had to defend their methods, so we discussed the relative merits of different social science methodologies. We explored how research, case studies, and data could be used to craft an “educationally sound and practicable” remedy. This work made me think about the larger question of how empirical research should affect court actions and how education litigation will evolve as we move into the era of “Big Data.” In decades past, courts could trust the expertise of experts who made qualitative claims. Moving into the future, empirical claims about remedies will increasingly need to rely on quantitative analysis. But what do we lose when courts of law privilege numerical data over the lived experiences of students?
It occasionally seemed a bit absurd that on the plaintiffs’ side alone, a dozen people were cooped up in hotel rooms away from their families for six weeks putting together slide decks, filing documents, preparing exhibits, and conducting meetings. But then I would remember that this case will have a huge impact: at stake is the fate of four universities. The outcome of the case will also reflect how Maryland, and ultimately other states, deal with the legacy of segregation.