In a bit of an uncommon move, lawyers for the plaintiffs, defendants and amici curiae in the case where Harvard University is defending itself against allegations of discrimination against Asian-American applicants met for a final hearing months after the initial trial adjourned.
The trial is over a lawsuit brought by a group called Students for Fair Admissions that claims Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants and gives them lower scores on personal ratings. SFFA wants to get rid of Harvard’s consideration of race in its admissions process.
The hearing was a greatest hits of sorts for arguments each side made over the course of the three-week trial that took place at the Moakley Federal Courthouse this past October.
Speaking first in front of a packed courtroom, Adam Mortara, the lead lawyer for SFFA, said that Asian-American applicants receive significantly lower scores on their personal ratings.
Mortara said that either means Asian-Americans truly deserve those scores, or “Harvard’s admissions officers have fallen prey to human frailty and racial stereotyping.”
During his argument, Mortara made multiple references to George Orwell’s novel “1984” to illustrate what he was aiming to show were inconsistencies between Harvard’s defense and what SFFA was pointing to as evidence.
“Don’t believe what you’re seeing,” Mortara said in an imitation of Harvard. “Don’t believe what you’re looking at. Believe us. Trust us.”
Mortara also responded to questions about why there were no students who testified on behalf of SFFA, which had been one of the biggest criticisms of the plaintiffs throughout the trial. He referred to the current online culture and the response Abigail Fisher, the white student who filed a similar lawsuit against the University of Texas, had received.
“Somebody would have done something horrible to one our students” if they had testified, he said.
For Harvard, lead lawyer Bill Lee poked at that lack of testimony, pointing out that along with no applicants, no one from SFFA got on the witness stand and there wasn't an application that was submitted to evidence from SFFA.
Lee said there’s no evidence of stereotyping, and that the elimination of race as a factor in applications would result in a drastic reduction in the number of black and Latino students on campus.
The additional hearing also allowed judge Allison Burroughs the chance to ask lawyers on both sides to clarify several points.
While Lee was speaking, Burroughs asked if there was implicit bias in Harvard's admissions process, then would there be a remedy for that. Lee responded by saying there is no proof of such implicit bias and that it's difficult to define what that is.
She also directly asked Harvard's lawyers what she's to do with the statistical evidence that shows Asian-Americans score lower on personal characteristics. Harvard responded by noting that the SFFA failed to show evidence of direct discrimination.
Burroughs pointed out the plaintiffs have the “no victim” problem and Harvard has the “personal ratings” problem. She also asked whether she had to find intentional discrimination.
Burroughs is expected to make a final decision later this year.
WGBH News' Kirk Carapezza contributed to this story.