The Trump administration on Friday urged a federal judge to allow for the public disclosure of records related to Harvard’s admissions practices, as part of a lawsuit accusing the elite school of bias against Asian-American applicants.
The Justice Department sided with a group suing Harvard for allegedly discriminatory admissions practices. The DOJ told the judge to reject the university’s attempts to shield from public view many case documents that it claims are confidential.
“The public funds Harvard at a cost of millions of dollars each year, and thus has a paramount interest in any proof of these allegations, Harvard’s responses to them, and the Court’s resolution of this dispute,” Justice Department attorneys wrote in a “notice of interest” filed on Friday.
The department urged the judge to “ensure that these proceedings are open and accessible to the public consistent with the requirements of governing law.”
The Trump administration’s involvement in the case comes as it is pursuing its own investigation into similar allegations that Harvard’s admissions practices constitute racial discrimination against Asian-Americans in violation of federal civil rights law.
The Justice Department confirmed last year that its investigation is similar to the ongoing lawsuit by Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard — as well as a separate civil rights complaint filed with the department in 2015 by a coalition of 60 Asian-American groups.
Students for Fair Admissions, which opposes affirmative action and first filed the suit in 2014, argues that it has received evidence as part of the suit that Harvard discriminated against Asian-American applicants and that the proceedings should be open to the public.
In a statement to POLITICO, a Harvard official, Rachael Dane, said: “Harvard College is responsible for protecting the confidential and highly sensitive personal information that prospective students — none of whom asked to be involved in this dispute — entrust to us every year in their applications. We are committed to safeguarding their privacy while also ensuring that the public has the access that it is entitled to under the law.”
The university has urged the judge to keep some categories of records under seal.
“Harvard understands that there is a public interest in this case and that the public has certain — though not unfettered — interests in access to judicial material,” the university’s attorneys wrote in a letter to the judge. “Those interests, however, must be balanced against the need to protect individual privacy and confidential and proprietary information about the admissions process.”
The Justice Department “notice of interest” filed on Friday focuses on the narrow issue of making the proceedings open to the public. But the department hinted that the Trump administration “may” soon weigh in on the substance of the affirmative action case with a “statement of interest.”
Government attorneys argued that the DOJ and any other interested parties can meaningfully participate in the case only if they’re able to access the “materials and familiarize themselves with the legal issues and portions of the voluminous discovery record that the parties present to the Court.”
“Given the overlap between this suit and the United States’ investigation, this Court’s resolution of issues presented here may bear on the scope and resolution of the United States’ investigation and enforcement of federal civil rights laws,” the DOJ attorneys added.
The Justice Department disclosed in the filing on Friday that it “has secured most of the discovery materials in this case” as part of its own investigation into Harvard’s admissions practices.
The DOJ and Harvard previously sparred over access to admissions records as part of that investigation. The Trump administration threatened to sue the university last year for failing to cooperate with a civil rights investigation.
Harvard’s attorneys, meanwhile, blasted the DOJ for an “irregular decision to investigate a years-old complaint” and said the university had “concerns about the highly unusual nature of this investigation.”
A coalition of Massachusetts media organizations and press advocacy groups on Friday also urged the judge to reject Harvard’s request to keep broad categories of records in the case under seal and instead allow documents to be shielded from the public “only if inescapably necessary.”
The groups wrote in a letter to the judge that their “concern is not whether Harvard’s admission process violates federal civil rights law, but instead that judicial records shedding light on this dispute — which is of exceptional public importance and community interest — remain open to the public.” The letter was signed by the New England First Amendment Coalition, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association and GateHouse Media LLC.
U.S. District Judge Allison D. Burroughs, who is overseeing the case in federal court in Massachusetts, has scheduled a hearing for Tuesday to hear arguments about public access to the case.