University reverse-discrimination case reaches federal court

Katuria Smith, Angela Rock and Michael Pyle thought their grades and test scores were as good as any applicant at the University of Washington School of Law.

But when the three white students were denied admission in the mid-1990s, each became convinced that minorities with lower scores had been admitted instead.

A reverse-discrimination lawsuit against the University of Washington by the three students is being heard this week in U.S. District Court in Seattle.

The trial could have national ramifications, according to the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

The three were denied admission to the university before Washington voters approved Initiative 200, which ended racial preferences in university admissions and hiring by state agencies.

If I-200 were overturned, the case could affect how the University of Washington uses race in setting admissions standards. It also could affect how public colleges in other states use diversity as an admissions criteria.

Before voters passed I-200 in November 1998, the University of Washington law school used race as a criteria for admissions.

Those rules were upheld based on the 1978 U.S. Supreme Court Bakke ruling, which allowed colleges to use race as one of many factors in admissions policies when a compelling interest for such preferences existed.

Critics argue that colleges interpret that too liberally. The Center of Individual Rights, a Washington, D.C.-based group that represents the plaintiffs, thinks the UW Law School used race as the “dominant” criteria in selecting students for admissions.

UW officials said race was never the main factor.

“This case could decide how Bakke would be interpreted,” in the future, said Curt Levey, spokesman for the Center for Individual Rights.

According to court documents, Smith, who was denied admission at UW in 1994, had a 3.28 grade-point average and a Law School Assessment Test (LSAT) score in the 94th percentile. She eventually attended Seattle University and now practices law in New York City.

Rock, who was denied admission in 1995, had a 3.65 grade average and an LSAT score in the 93rd percentile. She was admitted to Georgetown Law School and practices law in Las Vegas.

Pyle, who was turned down for admission in 1996, had a 3.15 grade average and an LSAT score in the 97th percentile. In 1999, he was admitted to the University of Washington Law School but pursued another career.

University of Washington attorney Mike Madden said race was not the “substantial factor” in denying admissions to the three plaintiffs. The Law School used race to ensure diversity from 1994 to 1998, but it was never a major criteria, he said.

Kathy Swinehart, a Washington admissions officer, testified this week that Rock’s essay “was not the caliber of other applicants” and that Rock did not get exceptional grades in key courses. Rock’s recommendation would have carried more weight had it come from a professor, not an instructor, Swinehart said.

Testimony is expected to run through Thursday. No time frame has been set on when U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly could rule.

A decision in favor of the plaintiffs means a hearing would be set up to determine monetary damages.