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Disparities in university system has spurred lawsuit that cost Maryland $2.2M in attorney fees

Advocates for Maryland's historically black colleges sued the state for running a segregated university system more than a decade ago.

Now, with the 2006 lawsuit back in federal court, the costs are again piling up for the Maryland Higher Education Commission. The commission has spent more than $2.2 million defending itself in the lawsuit, according to records provided to The Baltimore Sun under a Public Information Act request.

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The commission has paid law firms Venable LLP about $925,000 and Zuckerman Spaeder LLP $1.3 million. Attorneys for Venable charged between $200 and $495 an hour. Zuckerman Spaeder attorneys cost the commission between $215 and $570 an hour.

That's still a fraction of the estimated costs to redress what U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake has called a "shameful history" of segregation in the university system. State officials have said in court filings their own remediation plan would cost $26 million.

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The plaintiffs argue that marquee academic programs at well-funded, traditionally white public universities erode similar programs at historically black colleges. They have called for some of the programs to be transferred to the historically black institutions: Morgan State, Bowie State, Coppin State, and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore. State officials have asked the courts not to strip the programs.

Attorneys with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which is behind the lawsuit, have proposed about 100 programs to be transferred to or launched at the historically black colleges. These include a program in homeland security to be moved from Towson to Coppin, and computer engineering from University of Maryland, Baltimore County to Morgan State.

In the 1970s, nearly 20 percent of students at the historically black colleges were white, but that percentage plunged to 5 percent by 2009. Blake wrote in 2013 that the state had failed to stop the white institutions from offering the same programs as the historically black institutions, thereby encouraging segregation.

Court-ordered mediation failed in 2011 and 2014. Blake has ordered both sides back to court to hash out remedies, and the trial began last month.

Don't expect the state's costs to end soon. As lawyers and academics observing the case have concluded, whoever doesn't win will likely appeal.

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