SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — In a bitter fight over the effects of affirmative action, the California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that law school data on race, attendance and grades should be available to the public.
The unanimous decision represents a legal victory for a law professor seeking to test his notion that minority students are actually harmed by preferential admissions policies.
University of California, Los Angeles law professor Richard Sander created a firestorm when he published his "mismatch theory" in the Stanford Law Review in 2004.
Critics swiftly attacked his conclusions, saying Sander understated the positive effects of affirmative action and based his thinking on inadequate statistics.
To further his research, Sander sought data on ethnicity and scholastic performance compiled by the State Bar of California with a public records request in 2008. The state bar denied the request, prompting the lawsuit.
Information compiled by the bar, a branch of the state judiciary responsible with licensing and disciplining lawyers, is "unparalleled," Sander said after the ruling Thursday.
"Having access to this large database is just so enormously valuable. This is a big breakthrough," he said.
In the ruling, the state Supreme Court noted that identities of test takers must be protected from disclosure.
The court ordered the case returned to a trial judge to determine whether the requested information can be released without violating applicants' privacy.
Noting the exception, bar President Luis Rodriguez said the agency "will go back to the trial court to resolve the issues as identified in the opinion."
Sander and his attorneys said he is willing to pay the cost of redacting names. They also said the state bar already publicly releases some of the information, such as the ethnicity of those passing the exam, which should make the rest of the data available, too.
The researcher based his opinion in part on a 1991 database of 27,500 students from 160 schools compiled by the Law School Admissions Council, which showed that black students historically get poorer grades than their white counterparts in law school. Black students also drop out at higher rates and pass bar exams at lower rates than white students, according to the statistics.
Sander theorized that affirmative action was the reason for the disparity because racial preference admission policies placed black students in elite universities when they would have done better attending less rigorous schools.
A pair of Yale University economics researchers published a response to Sander's law review article, saying there would be nearly 13 percent fewer black lawyers if affirmative action admission policies were ended.
Sander later sought information on race, attendance and grades at law schools, test scores and the rate at which exam takers passed the test with the records request that prompted the lawsuit. At the time, the state bar's admission database contained information on about 246,000 applicants.
After his request was denied, several legal aid groups such as the Equal Justice Society and For People of Color joined the Bar Association of San Francisco and the state bar in urging the court to keep the data private.
Three dozen newspapers and media companies, including The Associated Press, and free speech advocates also filed a "friend of the court" brief urging release of the data, saying it was a matter of principle to keep government records publicly available.
State bar officials had argued that releasing the data would violate the promise of confidentiality to the applicants who take the test annually.
State bar attorneys argued that the agency is part of the judicial branch and not subject to the same open-records laws as other public agencies.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, however, stated that judicial branch records, like those of other public agencies, are open so long as "there is a legitimate public interest" and no other factor outweighs disclosure.
"The public does have a legitimate interest in the activities of the state bar in administering the bar exam and the admissions process," the chief justice wrote for the unanimous court. "In particular, it seems beyond dispute that the public has a legitimate interest in whether different groups of applicants, based on race, sex or ethnicity, perform differently on the bar examination and whether any disparities in performance are the result of the admissions process or of other factors."