Back to Bakke: First Circuit Finds No Error in Harvard’s Admissions Practices


Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, No. 19-2005 (1st Cir.)  November 12, 2020.


An advocacy group, questioning whether Harvard College’s admissions practices were unlawfully racially based, brought suit in federal district court.  The group was unsuccessful there and that result has not been disturbed on appeal.  

In general, racial ‘balancing’ in admissions practices is impermissible, as it is little other than impermissible racial “quota” practices by another name, but the same ratio of applicants to admissions over time does not necessarily reflect a quota.

Over a ten year period, Harvard’s racial percentages fell within a narrow range.  Harvard utilized one page summaries to illustrate the racial composition of classes.  

The court found that the number of admitted Asian applicants increased from 3.4% in 1980 to 20..6 in 2019 while applicants ranged from 4.1% in 1980 to 22.5% in 2014.  Without elaboration, the court concluded that this is inconsistent with a quota.  The court observed that the proportion of asian applicants to Asian admissions remained consistent over time.  

The court observed that stasis in the composition of classes reflects stasis in the pool of applicants.  Without more, the First Circuit found no error in the district court’s determination that neither quotas or balancing were in play in Harvard’s admissions procedures.  

The First Circuit found unobjectionable Harvard’s continuous monitoring of admissions as permissible in supporting its diversity goals without evidencing balancing or quota practices

The student advocacy group argued that Harvard applied race as a “mechanical plus” precluding individual considerations and permitting race as a decisive factor in admissions.

Where race can benefit any applicant and where race is individualized, mechanica arguments fail.  The court observed that racial diversity is not exclusive and has no more prominence than other diversity in Harvard’s contextualized admission practices.  The court found Harvard’s practices, which do not employ an impermissible fixed “points” practice, to be holistic with race, neither mechanical nor decisive.

The First Circuit upheld rejection of the argument that race was decisive because other racial groups were admitted in greater numbers than Asians of high academic achievement.  

The First Circuit noted that Supreme Court precedent has permitted racial impact greater than that evidenced by Harvar.  In one case, eliminating race as an admissions criteria would cause a 72.4% decrease in minority admissions, while in this case the change would be 45%, less than that permitted in the first case. 

The First Circuit stressed that race cannot be decisive for minimally qualified applicants but in this case race is not decisive for highly qualified applicants in a competitive process.  

The First Circuit rejected the perception of the United states government as amicus that Harvard considers race at every step of its admissions process.  The First Circuit rejected the United States’ premise that race may be considered only at only point in the admissions process and found that holistic considerations, including race, may be part of the admissions process throughout.  

Similarly, the First Circuit found unavailing the argument that the Supreme Court has found that race as a consideration must have a  stopping point because this exhortation was never mentioned in subsequent Supreme Court opinions.  

Precedent has never required universities to define an end point for the utilization of race as an admissions criteria and there is no error in Harvard’s not setting a ceiling on admissions.

Harvard’s having crafted, considered, and yet rejected as unworkable proffered alternatives to race in its admissions process does not mean that its evaluations were defective or inadequate.  

The First Circuit rejected the claim that Harvard impermissibly treated Asian students less favorably than others.

The presence of some subjectivity in admissions will not establish intentional discrimination, the First Circuit found, citing early discussion fo flexible admissions systems.  Any risk of subjective bias training the admissions process is mitigated by the requirement that admission cannot occur except through the vote of a majority of forty members of an admissions committee.  

The appellate court found unobjectionable the district court’s failure to find flawed as stereotypical references to Asians as “quiet,” “flat,” or other terms where such language was used concerning applicants from other groups. 

The court found no error in changes to admissions rating guidance to employees that race may not be considered an admissions rating criteria, nor was an increase in Asian admissions after the initiation of litigation as guidance is reviewed probative of discrimiation, as admissions guidance is reviewed and revised annually and Asan admissions have been increasing steadily over time.

Worries over inclusion or exclusion of personal ratings were dismissed by the court although the student advocacy group attempted to demonstrate that while inclusion of personal rating did not impact the likelihood of an Asian applicant’s admission the exclusion of this information would have a negative impact.

The essence of correlation between the rating and admission does not compel a finding of causation or ‘influence.’  

The district court did not err in considering several sources of evidence indicating that correlation but not causation was established.  The First Circuit upheld the district court’s conclusion that whether or not the personal rating is included in admission has no material effect, varies over time, and is not always negative.  

The district court opined that implicit bias was possible for unsupported and speculation about the explanation for significant variance in modes. The First Circuit found this exploration would not compel setting aside, as plain error, the conclusion that there was no intentional discrimination.  

Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard College, No. 19-1-01A (1st Cir.) November 12, 2020

Faith in the Not So Hot Zone: Second Circuit Denies Synagogues and Churches Relief from New York’s Pandemic Measures

Agudath Israel of America, et al. v. Cuomo, No. 20-3572; Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, No. 20-3590 (2nd. Cir.)  Stay pending appeal denied on November 9, 2020.

New York has restricted gatherings by size according to perceived geographic intensity of COVID-19 infections.  Religious groups have appealed a federal district court’s denial of injunctive relief that would preclude enforcement of New York’s order.  

Noting first that the Jewish petitioners failed to request a stay pending appeal in the federal district court, the Second Circuit then denied relief from operation of the pandemic measures pending appeal to Jews and Catholics alike

The Second Circuit commenced by stating that strict scrutiny does not apply to neutral and generally applicable laws.  The religious groups have been unable to establish that the pandemic restrictions are not neutral.  The restrictions on gatherings affect religion and secular groups similarly, and are premised on the prevalence of infection.  

The Supreme Court recently denied similar relief, the Second Circuit judges found, and the dissent in the appeal in this case has not persuaded the deciding justices that the standard of “reasonableness” at the time of the issuance of the pandemic orders must be viewed in light of changed circumstances. 

Dissenting Judge Park offered that the deciding judges have ruled based on a skewed perception of the zones.  The zone restrictions are not neutral.  Within zones only religious institutions remain restricted while “essential” operations are not.  

The measures not only specifically single out religious entities for special treatment but they also impose burdens that are substantially heavier than those imposed on other entities, in violation of the Free Exercise Clause.

The overtly different treatment of religious groups with an unmistakably disparate impact on these groups cannot be other than intentional. This is supported by the governor’s threat to close Orthodox Jewish institutions should they refuse to comply.

The dissent rejected the Governor’s argument that only rational basis review is needed as in the Governor’s view religious groups are treated more rather than less favorably than others,

The Governor’s position concedes non-neutrality, the dissenting judge observed. 

In the dissent’s view, the characterization of businesses as ‘essential’ and religious entities as ‘inessential’ facially targets religion.  Strict scrutiny is required as more than incidental burdens are evident.

The recent Supreme Court summary decision concerning California’s pandemic measures is not precedent, the dissent stated, because such orders are precedentail only where decided issues are identical.  The standards for relief in the Second Circuit and the temporal considerations are significantly different. 

New York has maintained the same restrictions since the inception of the pandemic notwithstanding marked reduction of disease.  

Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.s. 11 (19050 lacks the significance the Governor wishes it had, as Jacodbson was decided before the First Amendment was incorporated against the states and did not concern free exercise.   

Just as Jacobson does not support deference to indefinite exercise of emergency powers, but rather demands consideration of constitutional constraints, the facts of this case show that the absolute limits imposed on religious gatherings are not narrowly tailored.

The zone restrictions are the same — ten persons — for churches that can hold one thousand persons and those that can hold forty persons and the additional identified risks of singing or chanting make assumptions about religious gatherings not applicable to others.

The court has issued its briefing schedule for the merits with hearing to be scheduled as early as December 14, 2020. 

Agudath Isr. of Am. v. Cuomo (2nd Cir. 2020)

Keep Your Shirt On! Wisconsin Students Successfully Argue that the First Amendment Protects Wearing Controversial T-Shirts in School


N.J. ex rel. Jacob v. Sonnabend, No. 20-C-227; Lloyd v. Kaminski, No. 20-C-276 (E.D. Wis.) November 6, 2020.


Two Wisconsin students attending separate schools came to school wearing clothing advocating individual gun rights.  School authorities took action against the students for violating the schools’ dress codes.  One school rejected a parent’s attempt to provide an alternative t-shirt advocating patriotism.  

In 1969, the Supreme Court recognized that students have some protected expressive rights, the denial of which must be supported by evidence that the expression in question materially interferes with school functioning.  Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 509 (1969). 

In this case the schools did not focus on disruption but argued that the shirts were not protected because no particularized message was conveyed and some messages were advertisements.

The students assert that even if the shirts were commercial they nonetheless merit First Amendment protections.

While clothing itself is not generally protected, the court has rejected the school’s view that a particular and recognizable message must be present for First Amendment protections to attach.  The court noted that while one shire did contain commercial elements, the message concerning the right to bear arms was clear.  The court also rejected the argument that the message was not clear because the messages themselves are what precipitated the school’s intervention.

The shirts are entitled to First Amendment protection, the court concluded, but not absolute protection. The dimensions of any proper time and place restrictions remain open for exploration, but judgement that constitutional protection is lacking is denied.  

N.J. ex rel. Jacob v. Sonnabend (E.D. Wis. 2020)

Creche Not Entirely Quashed: Stay Pending Appeal of Dispute about Public Christmas Display Denied, but County’s Conformity to Establishment Clause Need Not Preclude All Religious Elements


Woodring v. Jackson County, Indiana, No. 4:18-cv-00243 (S.D. Ind.)  November 3, 2020.


The federal trial court in Indiana has concluded that Jackson County is not likely to prevail on the merits of its defense as a public Christmas display focused on the birth of Jesus, surrounded by secular figures, cannot convey anything other than an endorsement of a religious view and have anything other than a religious purpose, given its undisputed Christian symbolism and its failure to serve any secular end.

Although the court concluded that no passerby suffered religious coercion by virtue of viewing the display, deficits in two prongs of the Seventh Circuit’s tests for Establishment Clause violations, the count could not demonstrate the likelihood of success on the merits needed to enter a stay pending appeal.

The court observed that the presentation of a public Nativity scene has not been precluded but rather that the county has been permitted to bring its presentation into conformity with the Establishment Clause.

Woodring v. Jackson Cnty. (S.D. Ind. 2020)

Life Online: Court Declines to Order Discovery of Litigant’s Internet Identities and Activities in Its Entirety


Lindke v. Freed, No. 20-10872 (S.D. Mich.) November 2, 2020.


Plaintiff sued the city manager of Port Huron, Michigan, asserting that deleting unfavorable or politically disadvantageous comments from the city manager’s Facebook page violates LIndke’s First Amendment rights.

The Second Circuit has concluded that public officials’ public social media accounts may not exclude opinion because of disagreement.  Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University v. Trump, 928 F.3d 226 (2nd Cir. 2020), petition for cert. Filed August 20, 2020 (20-197). 

Freed seeks discovery, broadly stated, of all plaintiff’s social media history and activity, which plaintiff argues is beyond the scope of the lawsuit.

Defendant objects to the idea that the discovery must be cabinned to the case:  the information sought is essential to establishing that plaintiff is a “cyberbully.”

The court recognized that discovery in support of a cyberbully defense could be had but not until Freed better articulates the nature of the defense he intends to present so that discovery can be reasonably related to the case and not overly broad or unduly burdensome.  

This is particularly important, the court pointed out, where states have adopted various definitions as components of “cyberbullying.”  The court noted that whether such activities qualify for First Amendment protections may remain open for exploration, as the range of definitions of “cyberbullying” vary from unprotected “true threats” to annoyance.  Michigan criminal law tends toward “true threats” but of interest concerning discovery is which definition Freed intends to advance.

In addition the issue of whether the plaintiff posted using multiple pseudonyms may be relevant but the discovery request remains too broad.  Freed may be able to seek information about plaintiff’s behavior on Freed’s site but not throughout the internet.  Postings and accounts unrelated to Freed are not discoverable, the court has concluded.

The court declined to enter  protective order limiting discovery to matters in the complaints as discovery is already limited in that way.  Further refinement at this time is not necessary, the court concluded, but the court left open the issue of whether an order would be appropriate in light of the defendant’s refinement of his defense. 

Lindke v. Freed (E.D. Mich. 2020) Order November 2, 2020

When Civil Rights and Tort Wrongs Collide: Supreme Court Directs Fifth Circuit to Seek State Court Guidance on Liability for Injury Incurred at Protest

McKesson v. Doe, No. 19-1108, 592 U.S. _____ (S. Ct.)  November 2, 2020.


During an event protesting a police shooting in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, protesters blocked the highway in front of police headquarters. One protester threw concrete or a rock at a police officer who was clearing the highway. Having lost teeth and suffered brain trauma, the officer sued the protest event organizer.

A federal trial court dismissed the case, finding that the First Amendment barred the action A divided Fifth Circuit revered, finding some possibility for recovery under Louisiana tort law.

The Fifth Circuit did not attach precedential value to a Supreme Court case establishing that there is no liability for speech related violence unless it was deliberately intended.

The Fifth Circuit did not find the First Amendment to be a ban to tort recovery. Where petitioner directed obstruction of a highway and if the attack on the police officer was a consequence of the petitioner’s activity, the potential for tort liability could be found.

The Fifth Circuits’ dissent denounced the result, observing that a new tort of “negligent protest” could not be squared with the First Amendment.

Rehearing en banc was not granted, its denial accompanied by multiple opinions.

Petitioner McKesson asked the Supreme Court to overturn the Fifth circuit because liability for violence during protected activity must be closely circumscribed. McKesson argued that his activity was protected even if it was a misdemeanor and he had no relationship to the protester who injured the officer.

The Supreme Court has concluded that the Fifth Circuit’s analysis cannot be supported unless state law would support the action. Certification of the novel tort law question to the Louisiana Supreme court prior to ruling on any Constitutional question would have been prudent.

The Supreme Court entered a “GVR” order, granting the petition for certiorari, vacating the first Circuit judgment, and remanding to the Fifth Circuit for further proceedings in accordance with the Supreme court’s opinion.

McKesson v. Doe, No. 19-1108 (S. Ct.) November 2, 2020

Court Cannot Hear Complaint Grounded in Fear of an Imagined Future


Baker v. USD 229 Blue Valley, et al., No. 20-3054 (10th Cir.)  November 3, 2020.


A parent who had been granted a religious exemption from otherwise mandatory vaccinations as a condition of public school enrollment cannot obtain relief based on an unsubstantiated possibility that the exemption would be revoked in the future or based on imagined future interference with schooling alternatives elsewhere.

Article III of the United States Constitution precludes courts from entertaining actions other than those that are concrete and involve actual injury. As appellate review has revealed that petitioner could not meet either standard, the federal district court’s dismissal of the complaint was proper.

Baker v. USD 229 Blue Valley (10th Cir. 2020)

Called to Congregate: Federal Court Forbids Enforcement of Current Public Gathering Restrictions Against Capitol Hill Baptist Church


Capitol Hill Baptist Church v. Bowser, Mayor of the District of Columbia, No. 20-02710 (TNM).  Order granting preliminary relief entered October 9, 2020.


The United States District Court for the District of Columbia has enjoined enforcement of the District of Columbia’s prohibitions on certain public gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic because those restrictions may be found to violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (“RFRA”) because the rules substantially burden the free exercise of religion and because the District of Columbia has not demonstrated that sweeping pandemic-related measures, designed and enforced unevenly, are the least restrictive means of ensuring public health.

At the outset of the perceived public emergency precipitated by the contagious COVID-19 virus, the Mayor of the District of Columbia promulgated orders restricting public gatherings.  Over time some restrictions have been relaxed, permitting some resumption of restaurant commerce, for example, while others, such as those restricting the size of gatherings, have not been.  And notwithstanding the restrictions, the District has permitted and the Mayor has participated in, sizable protest gatherings.

Capitol Hill Baptist Church believes that its congregants are biblically bound to gather in person weekly, a practice begun in 1978 and continuing until March of 2020, with a brief interruption during the influenza outbreak of 1918.

Capitol Hill Baptist Church has asserted, and a federal district judge has agreed, that the District of Columbia’s current prohibition on indoor or outdoor gatherings of more than 100 persons, even if masked and ‘socially distancing’ substantially burdens congregants’ religious freedoms.

It is no answer, the Court has found, that substitutes for gatherings may exist or that the congregation has left the District of Columbia in order to gather, precluding the attendance of some who are without transportation.  

The “substitution” arguments are unavailing, the court concluded, as they do not fairly demonstrate that the District of Columbia has enacted the least restrictive means of ensuring public health.

The questions to be asked in RFRA review are not confined to generalities but to the impact of burdens on individuals as well as institutions.  

The government cannot meet its burden where it has freely abandoned the very restraints it designed, as where the Mayor participated in large public protests.  

The federal court noted that it has declined to address the question of the applicability of an enhanced standard for mandatory injunctive relief, as the relief requested and granted requires restraint from enforcement which does not compel the government to act.  The court observed that in any case the higher standard, if applied, could be met.

The Court also noted that it has declined to address First Amendment claims at this time because it has proceeded with RFRA analysis.

The Court rejected the District of Columbia’s untimely filings and rejected its argument that the church was itself untimely in seeking judicial relief, as the Court felt that the church ought not be penalized for first attempting negotiation before commencing litigation.

For the removal of doubt, the order is appealable.

The case has attracted a chorus of elected officials as amici, as well as a religious liberty advocacy group, which has compiled a summary of state pandemic restrictions on religious gatherings.

CHBC v, Bowser, Mayor, No. 20-02710_2020 10 09 Memorandum

CHBC v. Bowser, Mayor, No. 20-02710_2020 10 09 Order

CHBC v. Bowser, Mayor, No. 20-07210_34 Senators’ Amicus Brief

CHBC v. Bowser, Mayor, No. 20-02710_ Becket Fund for Religious Liberty Amicus Brief

He Could Have Been a Contender: Attorney Challenges Delaware Constitutional Requirement that Courts Maintain Balance Between Two Major Political Parties


Carney v. Adams, No. 19-309 (S. Ct.)  Oral argument set for Monday, October 5, 2020 at 10:00 a.m.


The Supreme Court’s new term opens tomorrow, October 5, with oral argument concerning a Delaware attorney’s challenge to state constitutional requirements that judicial appointments for several courts be made with party affiliations in mind, such that courts are balanced, or if not balanced, such that only a ‘bare majority’ of one party holds power.

James Adams wishes to become a judge in Delaware but as an independent is frozen out because of the state’s two-party balancing requirements.   

The state asserts that as sovereign its constitution may provide for equitable apportionment among parties in judicial appointments without being overridden by the federal government.  The state also asserts that the Supreme Court’s decisions in anti-patronage disputes permit the course adopted by Delaware for judges are policy makers whose work necessitates party loyalty, unlike employees who do not make policy and who ought not fear termination because of any political party affiliation.  

The state argues that as a preliminary matter Adams cannot sue because he has not been injured by the Constitutional provisions.  He has not actively sought appointment and he cannot inflict injury upon himself in order to create an interest in challenging the judicial appointment provisions.  

Adams believes that he need not seek appointment with full knowledge that he would be rejected so that he can challenge Delaware’s constitution.  Delaware’s position that sovereignty precludes a challenge to its constitution must fail, Adams argues, because the constitution is depriving him of associational rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.   Moreover, there is little merit to the ‘policy maker’ argument, as the very thing that the anti-patronage cases rejected — loss of employment because of party affiliation — does not depend on whether an employee is high level or low level, but on whether party affiliation caused the harm in issue, his failure to be able to become a judge because he is not a partisan.

Delaware takes pride in having enshrined partisan balancing in its constitution.  Preeminent in the law of corporations, Delaware is invested in establishing and maintaining fairness in judicial appointments so that the credibility and reliability of its judiciary will be perceived to be sound.  Delaware argues that the state constitution serves this end and must be permitted to remain as it is.  

Adams insists that the preclusion from a coveted appointment is hardly the “light burden” on free speech that the state contends that it is, but rather creates an unconstitutional categorical exclusion of independent or third party judicial candidates.. 

Carney v. Adams No. 19-309 Brief of Petitioner John C. Carney, Governor of Delaware

Carney v. Adams, No. 19-309 Brief of Respondent James R. Adams

Carney v. Adams, No. 19-309 Reply Brief of Petitioner John C. Carney, Governor of Delaware



Note regarding oral argument.. As restrictions related to the COVID-19 virus remain in effect, and as the Supreme Court remains closed, argument will be conducted telephonically. Although modified to address public health concerns, guarantees of access to the courts have not been abandoned. Oral arguments will be available by livestream audio through C-Span: https://www.c-span.org/video/?469266-1/carney-v-adams-oral-argument

Never Can Say Goodbye: Judge Mulls Dismissing Flynn Proceedings with Room for Prosecution by “A New Administration”


United States v. Michael T. Flynn, No. 1:17-cr-232 (EGS).  Hearing on government’s motion to dismiss on September 29, 2020.



A hearing was held today on the government’s motion to dismiss proceedings against Gen. Michael T. Flynn, and in particular whether the government may deny it, notwithstanding that the government has represented that there is no case against General Flynn.  The court, persuaded that he had discretion to deny the government’s motion to dismiss, wanted to know from counsel where that discretion began and where it ends.  The court mused about whether dismissal might be granted without prejudice, allowing room for further proceedings by  “a new administration,” or, the court quickly added, perhaps in a continuation of the current administration.

The court’s amicus urged the court not to succumb to the importuning of a coordinate branch, stating that the court ought not tarnish its chambers with dismissal because “the President wants Flynn off the hook.”   

With respect to defendant’s arguments that the government sought to create circumstances in which it would appear that Flynn had lied, amicus offered, “Where ya been?  That’s what they do!”  

[JustLawful aside:  Perhaps amicus, by virtue of his experience in the law, and as a judge, has grown deaf to the appearance of such remarks to those who may be unacquainted with investigative pressures.  “That’s what they do!” suggests that, simply by virtue of a thing being done, it were acceptable.  Were this so, of course, there would be no criminal law at all, and while custom and usage go far in the law, custom and usage are always bounded by the Constitution.]

Amicus assured the judge that the judge had done a good job in summarizing the case.  

Counsel for the government argued the law as well as for the moral dignity of the Department of Justice in its prosecutorial functions.  Counsel argued strenuously that prosecutors may cease prosecution on discovery that there was no basis to proceed, and that this was so in this case, as the facts disclosed to the court revealed.  A senior counsel in the U.S. Attorney’s office expressed distress that the office had been accused of behaving with political motivation, assuring the court that the Department of Justice  acts with integrity, and that includes review if a prosecution seems to have gone awry.

Counsel for General Flynn was last in line for the court’s inquiry, which was preceded by the court’s intimating that counsel had behaved unethically in communicating with the Attorney General when initially retained.  In addition,the court was particularly interested in counsel’s contacts with the President, which counsel disclosed.  Thus the threat of bar disciplinary proceedings was made before counsel was permitted to advocate.  

Counsel for General Flynn asserted that there is no basis in law for the court’s appointment of a private prosecutor in this matter in the guise of an amicus, and noted that the court’s intention to orchestrate the possibility of future prosecutions provided yet more evidence of bias, and moved for recusal of the judge, with written motions to follow.

There will be additional filings by counsel for the defendant as well as by the United States, as the court has asked the Department of Justice to look into what was done with evidence concerning texts between an FBI official and a private attorney.

The court took the matter under advisement, noting how voluminous was the record before him.