It’s been ten months since lawyers sparred over Harvard’s admissions policy in a heated three-week trial last fall. Nearly a year later, the winner has yet to be named.
Judge Allison D. Burroughs, an Obama appointee overseeing the case, hasn’t released her verdict yet. Her decision — almost certain to be appealed regardless of the outcome — could prove pivotal in an ongoing legal battle that could shape the future of affirmative action at private colleges and universities nationwide.
The dispute began in 2014, when anti-affirmative action advocacy group Students for Fair Admissions sued Harvard, alleging that the College’s famously selective admissions process discriminates against Asian American applicants.
Experts say it’s difficult to know when she will decide.
“Federal district court judges typically have hundreds of cases on their dockets,” said A. Benjamin Spencer, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, who is an expert in civil procedure. “Although a given case is important to the litigants involved, it is not the only matter before that judge.”
Unlike criminal cases — in which defendants have the right to a speedy trial — judges overseeing civil disputes don’t have to meet specific deadlines.
Federal court judges also have to prioritize criminal over civil cases when they have both on their dockets, according to Peter F. Lake, a higher education law professor at Stetson University.
“This could drag on for years, and people should be prepared for that reality,” Lake said.
Spencer and Lake both said case's complexity is likely contributing to the delay.
“This would clearly require the highest level of attention,” Lake said, nothing that the case is “incredibly complicated fact-wise and legally.”
“The judge and her law clerk may have to engage in extensive research and review a voluminous record to ensure that each issue is addressed appropriately,” Spencer said.
Lake also said Burroughs could also be taking her time to craft a meticulous and airtight verdict, given that it will almost certainly be challenged and could ultimately be reviewed by the Supreme Court.
“It’s almost inevitably going to be appealed,” Lake said. “It’s unlikely that any decision could actually satisfy both sides, so somebody will likely push this up the chain of command.”
A thorough decision can make it harder for attorneys find substantive issues on which to base their appeal, he said.
Though Burroughs has not yet decided the case, attorneys for Harvard and SFFA are likely already preparing for her ruling.
“In the meantime, each side is likely preparing post-trial motions in the event that the decision is adverse to them,” Spencer said. “Such motions are based on things like trial errors or erroneous legal determinations.”
Robert M. Farrell, the clerk of the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts, declined to comment on the timeline of Burroughs’s decision.
Edward Blum, the president of SFFA, also said he has no information on the status of the case.
“Wish I knew something but I don’t,” he wrote in an email. “Damn.”