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Washington — The Justice Department lent its support Thursday to students who are suing Harvard University over affirmative action policies that they claim discriminate against Asian-American applicants, in a case that could have far-reaching consequences in college admissions.

In a statement of interest, the department supported the claims of the plaintiffs, a group of Asian-Americans rejected by Harvard. They contend that Harvard has systematically discriminated against them by artificially capping the number of qualified Asian-Americans it accepts to advance less qualified students of other races.

“Harvard has failed to carry its demanding burden to show that its use of race does not inflict unlawful racial discrimination on Asian-Americans,” the Justice Department said in its filing.

The filing said that Harvard “uses a vague ‘personal rating’ that harms Asian-American applicants’ chances for admission and may be infected with racial bias; engages in unlawful racial balancing; and has never seriously considered race-neutral alternatives in its more than 45 years of using race to make admissions decisions.”

The Justice Department has increasingly used such statements of interest to intervene in civil rights cases. Before 2006, such statements appeared only seven times in civil rights-oriented disputes, according to a recent paper by a law school student, Victor Zapana. From 2006 to 2011, they were drafted in at least 242, almost all by the Obama administration on issues such as videotaping police brutality and ensuring that blind people and their service dogs have access to Uber.

But the Trump administration is turning the same tool against affirmative action in college admissions, a major — and highly contentious — legacy of the civil rights era, and one that white conservatives have opposed for decades. In the past few years, the anti-affirmative action cause has been joined by Asian-Americans who argue that they are being held to a higher standard, losing out on coveted slots at places like Harvard as African-Americans, Latinos and other groups get a boost.

A handful of states ban public universities from relying on affirmative action, pushing several toward a model that takes socioeconomic factors into account instead of race. Public universities in California and Washington have tried to engineer class-based diversity in their student bodies, believing that giving a lift to lower-income students will end up bringing in more minority students as well.

But these methods have not produced classes with an ethnic makeup that mirrors that of the states where they have been used, and many selective private universities continue to admit students partly on the basis of race — though, until Harvard was forced to detail its internal admissions policies recently, few could say how elite universities actually weighed applicants’ race.

Now, universities that factor race into admissions have found a powerful new opponent in the Trump administration, which argued in its filing Thursday that the court should deny Harvard’s request to dismiss the case before trial.

The government said Supreme Court rulings require universities considering race in admissions meet several standards. They must define their diversity-related goals and show that they cannot meet those goals without using race as a factor in admissions decisions.

The department argued that Harvard does not adequately explain how race factors into its admissions decisions, leaving open the possibility that the university is going beyond what the law allows.

“Harvard has failed to show that it does not unlawfully discriminate against Asian-Americans,” the Justice Department said in a statement Thursday.

Harvard said it was “deeply disappointed” but not surprised “given the highly irregular investigation the DOJ has engaged in thus far.”

“Harvard does not discriminate against applicants from any group, and will continue to vigorously defend the legal right of every college and university to consider race as one factor among many in college admissions, which the Supreme Court has consistently upheld for more than 40 years,” the university said in a statement.

A broad coalition of Harvard supporters filed briefs in support of the university Thursday condemning the lawsuit and saying that it would effectively threaten diversity at all American colleges.

Those groups include 25 alumni and student groups represented by the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union, a group of economists who criticized the experts whose work was used in the original lawsuit and a group of 531 social scientists and academics who study access to college.

“Eliminating race-conscious admissions would disproportionately harm applicants of color, including some Asian-Americans,” Harvard alumni said in their filing.

“Applicants’ opportunities to amass credentials that make for a competitive college application are greatly affected by race,” alumni and students wrote. “Given racial bias in standardized testing and endemic racial inequities,” they said the school must continue to consider race.

The Harvard case, which was brought by an anti-affirmative-action group called Students for Fair Admissions, is seen as a test of whether a decadeslong effort by conservative politicians and advocates to roll back affirmative action policies will ultimately succeed. The Education and Justice departments said in July that the administration was abandoning Obama-era policies that asked universities to consider race as a factor in diversifying their campuses and would favor race-blind admissions instead.

Officials from both departments said the Obama administration had used guidelines to circumvent Congress and the courts to create affirmative action policies that went beyond existing law.

Civil rights leaders and others argue that this stance effectively undermines decades of policy progress that created opportunity for minorities.

At the heart of the case is whether Harvard’s admissions staff holds Asian-Americans to higher standards than applicants of other racial or ethnic groups, and whether they use subjective measures, like personal scores, to cap the number of Asian students accepted to the school.

“Harvard today engages in the same kind of discrimination and stereotyping that it used to justify quotas on Jewish applicants in the 1920s and 1930s,” Students for Fair Admissions said in a court filing.

Harvard, which admitted less than 5 percent of its applicants this year, said that its own analysis did not find discrimination.

A trial in the case has been scheduled for October.

New York Times