Kirkland partner Mike Jones spoke with Reuters Legal regarding his pro bono success challenging decades of inadequate funding at Maryland's four historically Black universities. Watch the extended interview with Mike here: https://reut.rs/3dMih1i
If there's one lesson Kirkland & Ellis partner Mike Jones takes from his great-grandfather, who was born an enslaved person and fought in the army's U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War, it's the value of perseverance.
For 12 years, Jones working pro bono has battled the state of Maryland in a massive civil rights case, challenging decades of inadequate funding and programs at the state's four historically Black universities.
"This has been the longest, most difficult case of my career," said Jones, a commercial litigator who in 1991 became Kirkland's first Black partner. But whatever difficulties he's faced, he said, "pale in comparison to the obstacles my predecessors had to overcome."
After two lengthy trials, five mediations, a Fourth Circuit appeal, three legislative hearings and more than 25,000 hours work by Kirkland lawyers, the end is finally in sight - a $557 million settlement that stands to remake public higher education in the Old Line State.
For that win, Jones and his Kirkland & Ellis team including of counsel Karen Walker and partner Christopher Maner are Legal Action's February Pro Bono Heroes.
Jones' work on the case began in 2009, when he and co-counsel from the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law began representing The Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education. The group is composed of current, former and potential students at the state's four historically Black universities: Morgan State University, Bowie State University, Coppin State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
For Jones, the representation has a personal resonance. He, too, is a graduate of a historically Black school, Dillard University in New Orleans, where he currently serves as chairman of the board of trustees.
The plaintiffs in their Maryland federal court complaint alleged that the state has clung to its "racially segregated system of higher education," even though the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 held that such a de jure approach was unconstitutional.
For decades, Maryland's historically Black colleges and universities have been short-changed on funding and capital improvements, the plaintiffs said, arguing that the schools' programs have been unnecessarily duplicated by their traditionally white counterparts, siphoning away potential students.
For example, Jones said, Morgan State offers an MBA program. It's a high-demand degree that should have attracted students of all races. "But rather than fully supporting it," he said, Maryland's higher education officials in 2005 overruled Morgan State's objections and greenlighted an MBA program at the University of Baltimore/Towson University, "a stone's throw away," Jones said. That program attracts local students who might otherwise have chosen Morgan State.
It's happened again and again.
According to the plaintiffs, "traditionally white public universities in Maryland have 122 academic programs not duplicated elsewhere in the state system, while historically Black schools count only 11 such offerings."
With so few unique offerings, the four historically Black schools are at a disadvantage, the plaintiffs said, hampered in their ability to "become comparable and competitive with Maryland's traditionally white institutions."
When the case went to trial in 2012 before U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake, only 5% of students at the Maryland's historically Black colleges were white - a lower percentage than in the 1970s.
Blake in her 2013 opinion sided with the plaintiffs, citing Maryland's "shameful history of de jure segregation throughout much of the past century."
"Public higher education opportunities for African Americans were either non-existent or decidedly inferior to the opportunities afforded to white citizens," she wrote.
She initially held off imposing a remedy, but said that Maryland's current academic disparities were "worse than Mississippi of the 1970s."
To me, that's one of the more unexpected things about the case. I lived in Maryland for 16 years, and while the state has a Republican governor, it's generally quite liberal (Joe Biden in 2020 carried it by 33 points). It's also very wealthy, leading the country in median household income.
Jones, who also lived in Maryland's Prince George's County bordering Washington, D.C., for years, said he was also "surprised at how aggressively (Maryland) defended the case and their position."
The state was represented by outside counsel from Zuckerman Spaeder and lawyers from the Maryland AG's office. Zuckerman's Cyril Smith referred a request for comment to Assistant Attorney General Jennifer DeRose, who did not respond.
The breakthrough came in 2019, when Adrienne Jones became the first Black speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, he said.
A few legislative formalities remain in order to finalize the settlement, but the deal calls for the historically Black universities to receive a $577 million funding bump, payable over 10 years.
It also restructures higher education in Maryland by adding 10 new positions to the program approval staff, making it easier for the schools to get approval of new academic programs and to expand existing academic programs. It will also expand their online programs.
Throughout the 12-year odyssey, Jones said that Kirkland has been steadfast in its support. "It's a good example of how a large firm can step up to make civil rights a reality," he said.
The settlement, he added, "will make quite a difference for students in Maryland. It's the kind of case you can't do at a small firm."