Settlement conference to be held in bias lawsuit
Group claims state discriminates against black colleges, universities
A private hearing between the two sides will be held Monday in Baltimore's U.S. District Court, less than a month before the case is scheduled for trial.
"The state has been saying to us that they are serious and are prepared to make substantial offers, but what specifically that means, I guess we'll find out" on Monday, said Michael D. Jones, a Washington attorney who represents the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education.
"It certainly has the potential to be a significant development," Jones said, but "it's a little bit early to tell whether it, in fact, is or isn't."
David Paulson, a spokesman for the Maryland attorney general's office, said the state intends to enter the discussions in good faith with "the aim to reach a meaningful resolution."
"Nobody can predict the outcome," Paulson said, adding, "It's much better to mediate a settlement than it is to go to trial."
In its lawsuit, the coalition contends that the Maryland Higher Education Commission is still using discriminatory policies and procedures that have roots in segregation and that it has failed to bring the state's four historically black institutions — Morgan, Coppin and Bowie state universities and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore — into parity with the others.
Members have asked for remedies including increased funding and resources and the dismantling of certain competing programs at other schools.
At a hearing last month, Assistant Attorney General Campbell Killefer said that there was no proof of intentional — if any — discrimination. He blamed existing segregation on the marketing materials of historically black schools and questioned the integrity of a coalition expert.
He asked the court to "dismiss the case entirely."
In an 11-page memorandum filed June 6, however, U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake rejected Killefer's claims that intent matters in this instance.
The legal standard only requires the plaintiffs to show that allegedly discriminatory policies are traceable to "practices that were instituted in the past for segregative reasons," she wrote. If they can do that, the burden then shifts to the state to prove that there is no discrimination or that there's a "sound educational justification" for it.
The judge specifically ruled that the coalition "presented genuine disputes of material fact" regarding the formula used to fund operational budgets — and its traceability to the segregation era — and whether it was fair for Towson University and the University of Baltimore to expand MBA programs in 2005 over the objection of Morgan State University.
She also found that there was some question about the control historically black schools have over their own destinies, opening the door for those areas to be discussed at trial.
Blake threw out claims that the state intentionally discriminated against Morgan regarding the MBA programs and that the capital budget process is rooted in segregation policies.
"There is not sufficient evidence to go forward," she wrote.
Jones said his legal team plans to file paperwork this week requesting a clarification on the capital-budget ruling and whether it would prevent them from asking for facility improvements that are tied to educational program upgrades.
A day after Blake released her memorandum, the state asked for a conference "to discuss possible mediation," according to a court document.