The US Supreme Court is set this week to examine two potential landmark cases in back-to-back sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Tuesday case seeks to test compliance with the constitutional principle of one person, one vote in voting districts in Texas. Wednesday’s case challenges the use of race in an affirmative action admissions program at the University of Texas.
While it is unusual to have two such high-profile cases heard on consecutive days, what is even more unusual is that the two cases share the same origin. Both legal challenges were conceived and launched by the same man – Edward Blum of Austin, Texas.
In recent years Mr. Blum has emerged as a remarkably successful constitutional crusader. The cases on Tuesday and Wednesday will mark the fifth and sixth time one of his litigation projects has made it to the Supreme Court.
This would be an exceptional record for any appellate lawyer, but Blum isn’t even a lawyer.
Blum, a former stock broker, is under no illusions about the popularity of his lawsuits. Both of the current cases have drawn scorching criticism from major civil rights groups and advocates. Even the Republican-controlled State of Texas is pushing back against his approach in the voting case.
“Discriminatory and nonsensical,” is how Katherine Culliton-Gonzalez, director of voter protection with the Advancement Project, describes the Texas voting case.
Blum’s Project on Fair Representation was originally set up 10 years ago as an advocacy organization set up to educate the American public and lawmakers about what he terms the “pitfalls and mischievous evolution of the Voting Rights Act.”
He says that when it became clear that advocacy was not working, it morphed into a litigation organization and started filing lawsuits.
It was one of Blum’s suits that resulted in the June 2013 landmark decision that essentially gutted a major section of the Voting Rights Act. The 5 to 4 decision freed certain states from the requirement, dating from the 1960s, that they obtain pre-approval in Washington before making any voting changes.
The point of the lawsuit was that Congress had not adequately updated the 40-year-old criteria used to determine which states must comply with the preclearance requirement.
Civil rights groups denounced the decision as a step backward that would leave minorities vulnerable to discriminatory voting laws. Supporters praised the decision as restoring the proper balance of power between the states and the national government.
Blum rejects critics who say his work is opening the door for more discrimination. Instead, he says, he is seeking to enforce a colorblind approach, a high standard of equality, that he believes the Constitution mandates.
“The mission of the organization is to eliminate distinctions by race and ethnicity by government actors in voting, employment, contracting, and education,” he said in an interview.
His cases are reaching the high court at a time of heightened racial tension across the country following a series of fatal confrontations between African-American men and the police, the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and growing activism on college campuses seeking greater racial sensitivity by students, faculty, and administrators.
Many of these efforts seek more acknowledgment of race, not less.
Blum’s approach to identifying potential Supreme Court landmarks is to closely examine fundamental principles in the Constitution that he feels are not being fully enforced. He says the personal traits that have fostered his success at the high court include “the ability to think about these cases for long periods of time.”
Second, he says, is “my ability to recognize the best legal talent in America and recruit that legal talent to represent the people I find [to serve as plaintiffs in each case].”
Third, he says, he strives to “not let my compulsive nature irritate the fabulous legal talent.”
Blum has a reputation for not leaving anything to chance. He gives nearly as much consideration to the selection of an appropriate plaintiff as identifying the best lawyer to argue the case. His litigation projects are funded by conservative donors. Blum has no staff.
The fundamental principle that unites the two cases set for oral argument this week, Blum says, is fairness.
Tuesday’s case, Evenwel v. Abbott, asks the court to examine whether the principle of one person, one vote requires state legislative districts to be apportioned based on the number of citizen-voters in a state rather than the state’s total population.
Wednesday’s case, Fisher v. University of Texas, is a reexamination of the use of race in admissions at the flagship university in Texas.
“Fisher is about the proposition that your race should neither be used to help you nor harm you in your life’s endeavors,” he says.
The Evenwel case questions whether a statewide redistricting plan that dilutes some votes while enhancing others is consistent with the principle of voter equality – the idea that each voter is entitled to cast a full and fair ballot, he says.
“What connects the two goes back to fairness in our electoral system and fairness in our college admissions system,” Blum says.
Blum believes it is unfair to use race or ethnicity as a criterion for government decisions, that it is just as wrong to use race to discriminate in a negative way as it is to use race to grant a preference or preferred status.
Although the Texas voting case doesn’t directly address racial classifications, Blum says that if the high court embraces his approach to one person, one vote it will eliminate one method of drawing voting districts with an eye toward enhancing voting power of certain racial or ethnic groups.