December 8, 2012

Affirmative action: Filing suit over race-based protection

Edward Blum of Maine says race-based policies violate the principles they intend to uphold.

By JOAN BISKUPIC Reuters

SOUTH THOMASTON - Sometime in the next few months, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide two cases that could fundamentally reshape the rules of race in America.

Edward Blum
click image to enlarge

Edward Blum, seen at his home in South Thomaston, finds people to challenge affirmative action and other race-based policies and then lines up the legal team for the court fight.

Reuters/Joel Page

In one, a young white woman named Abigail Fisher is suing the University of Texas over affirmative action in college admissions.

In the other, an Alabama county wants to strike down a law that requires certain states to get federal permission to change election rules.

If they win, the names Fisher and Shelby County, Ala., will instantly become synonymous with the elimination of longstanding minority-student preferences and voting-rights laws. But behind them is another name, belonging to a person who is neither a party to the litigation nor even a lawyer, but who is the reason these cases ever came to be.

He is Edward Blum, a little-known 60-year-old former stockbroker.

Working largely on his own, with the financial support of a handful of conservative donors, Blum sought out the plaintiffs in the Fisher and Shelby County cases, persuaded them to file suit, matched them with lawyers, and secured funding to appeal the cases all the way to the high court. Abigail Fisher is the daughter of an old friend of Blum's -- a man who happened to call when Blum was in the midst of a three-year search for a white college applicant who had been rejected despite solid scores.

Blum eventually got Shelby County to file suit after searching government websites and cold-calling a county official.

Blum introduced Fisher's father and Shelby County officials to the same high-priced but politically sympathetic Washington lawyers, who agreed to work for a cut rate to be billed to Blum's backers. Neither Fisher nor Shelby County is paying to fight the cases that bear their names.

Over the past 20 years, Blum has similarly launched at least a dozen lawsuits attacking race-based protections.

In addition to the Fisher and Shelby County cases, two other Blum-backed cases reached the Supreme Court. One struck down majority-black and majority-Latino voting districts in Texas.

The other prompted the court to suggest it might eliminate a major portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which the conservative-majority bench may now be poised to do in the Shelby County case.

A self-described former college liberal, Blum says that over time he came to believe that race-based policies violate the very principles of equality they were created to uphold.

Affirmative action, he said, treats whites unfairly and stigmatizes minorities, and the rule that requires certain, mostly Southern, states to obtain special federal permission for electoral changes - Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act -- unjustly punishes them for long-abandoned racist practices.

"The original vision has been turned upside down," said Blum.

OPERATING FROM MAINE

Blum, who has a runner's lean build, operates from a book-lined office in his white two-story frame house on Penobscot Bay. He holds an unpaid fellowship with the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington and in 2005 formed a not-for-profit legal defense foundation, the Project on Fair Representation, of which he is the sole employee. The organization's website says it devotes "all of its efforts to influencing jurisprudence, public policy, and public attitudes regarding race and ethnicity."

The Project on Fair Representation, in turn, is fully financed by a tax-exempt charitable group called Donors Trust, which raises money from a variety of benefactors and directs them to conservative foundations and projects.

According to Internal Revenue Service documents, Donors Trust spent about $1.2 million from 2006 to 2011, the most recent information available, on Project on Fair Representation activities. Gifts to charities such as Donors Trust are tax deductible; money given directly to a legal-defense fund that is not a charitable organization generally is not.

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