Both could upend decades of civil rights law. Both were ushered along by Blum.
As director of the Project on Fair Representation and the project’s sole employee, Blum largely works alone. He found the plaintiffs after years of hunting and paired them with attorneys at Wiley Rein, a powerhouse Washington law firm. Blum’s legal defense fund pays the attorneys’ fees.
“I’m just a regular guy," he said quietly in a recent interview. A regular guy whose search for cases at the intersection of race, public policy and law has spanned 20 years.
“It’s not even a close call to say that he is dead wrong in his positions," said Gary Bledsoe, a civil rights attorney and president of the Texas NAACP, which has tangled with Blum through the years.
Blum will say only that it’s the civil rights groups that have gone astray.
“The civil rights movement had it right from the very beginning — abandon the use of race," Blum said.
The right plaintiff
To that end, he has developed a keen eye for plaintiffs with the story, demeanor and will to mount constitutional challenges to laws that show preference to minorities.
“Challenging race-based policies requires a very delicate touch and requires someone of a good heart ... to understand that there is another side of the argument," Blum said, describing how he looks for plaintiffs, “and to be sympathetic to that."
Translation: Bigots, showboats and embittered activists need not apply — a sentiment Blum has put to work in more than one instance.
Blum (pronounced “Bloom") was born in Michigan and raised in Florida and Houston. He grew up the son of a shoe salesman in a home where Yiddish was spoken. “There were family members who had tattoos on their forearms," Blum said.
He attended public schools before graduating from the University of Texas in 1973. He then spent a year at the State University of New York, studying African literature, which he found intellectually stimulating. Blum returned South, where he became an investment adviser and dabbled in Republican politics.
In 1993, he ran for Congress against Democrat Craig Washington in the city’s 18th District, an inner-city hub that many Houstonians still consider Barbara Jordan’s seat. The district’s lines curled around in some places, cutting through neighborhoods. As Blum campaigned, walking the district, he said he found it “so badly gerrymandered" that he thought it must be unconstitutional.
Blum lost the race badly, but he heard about cases that were bubbling up through the courts challenging other districts that had been drawn along racial lines. He recruited a handful of plaintiffs and raided his savings to hire an attorney to the tune of $7,000 a month. In 1996, by a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court decided that case — Vera v. Bush — and struck down the district.
Blum, by his own admission, was “smitten" by the power to make change.
As word about him got out, he began to hear from white mothers in Houston who could not get their children into the public school’s vanguard programs because of quotas that specified the number of whites and blacks. He helped put together a case against the school district that was settled when the district agreed to open enough slots to accommodate all qualified students.
“See, these are good outcomes," Blum said.
He turned to his next targets: ending race-based affirmative action in higher education, as well as requirements that jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination get clearance from the federal government before making changes that affect voting.
The strategy that Blum uses to challenge the constitutionality of laws before the Supreme Court is not new. Civil rights attorneys in the 1950s and ’60s honed it to a science.
This year’s cases
The search for a plaintiff to challenge affirmative action in higher education took Blum two years. He began the hunt in 2006, just after the Supreme Court narrowly upheld an affirmative action program at the University of Michigan.
Blum’s alma mater — the University of Texas — was a natural target: Blum knew the school used race as one factor in its admissions process. He set up the website UTNotFair.org to solicit the stories of white students whose applications had been rejected. He sifted through some 300 entries.
He considered one young man, but he seemed like a goofball who might go off the rails, Blum recalls. He met another student whose father said things that struck Blum as bigoted.
Then Blum heard from Abigail Fisher’s father. Blum had known the Fishers since before Abigail was born, and they knew of his hunt. Fisher had been denied admission to UT, the university her father and sister had attended, and she wanted to sue.
Blum look at Fisher’s academic record and then gave the A-student The Talk.
“It will be represented in court that you, as an individual 18-year-old kid, are questioning the wisdom and propriety of diversity in higher education," he recalled saying. “And your friends may not like this. Your parents’ friends may not like this. ... I’ll pay for it all. I’ll hold your hand throughout the years ... but you have to be prepared for this."
Fisher said yes. The justices agreed to hear the case, which was argued this fall.
At the same time, Blum was narrowing in on a plaintiff to challenge his other target: Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, a triumph of the civil rights movement passed to protect black voters from literacy tests and Jim Crow election officials.
He searched the Justice Department’s website for jurisdictions that had been denied pre-clearance. After several cold-calls, he reached Frank “Butch" Ellis of Shelby County, near Birmingham, Ala.
Ellis told him about growing up amid the dairy farms of Shelby County and about the county today — young and growing, where one city in the predominantly white county had elected its first black mayor in 2012.
“We’ve moved beyond race in these jurisdictions," Blum said.
In a moment of serendipity a few weeks back, Blum boarded a plane from South Carolina to Washington and overheard a man talking about the challenge to the Voting Rights Act. Blum introduced himself and recognized Armand Derfner’s name.
Derfner, who helped shape the Voting Rights Act through Supreme Court arguments in the late 1960s, exchanged polite conversation with Blum during the flight. But he left wondering: “How can a nice person be doing such awful things?"
“The notion that the tiny infinitesimal group of circumstances in which a black person may get some favoritism ... is the nation’s issue when blacks are on the bottom every single day, in every single way is just insane," Derfner said. “What people like Edward Blum are doing is ignoring reality."
Blum will leave it to the Supreme Court to decide.