Adam Mortara, the lead trial counsel for Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) in their lawsuit against Harvard University, was a high school slacker. While his young clients’ whole lives have revolved around school and getting into college, Mortara would refuse to turn in homework assignments and either skipped or slept in class. Mortara felt his spare time was better spent playing Dungeons and Dragons and working on his underground newspaper. Cs and Ds decorated his report card. He took his AP Physics examination in crayon. In his senior year of high school, Mortara accrued approximately fifty detentions, the vast majority of which he ultimately never served. “Succeeding in high school was not particularly interesting [to me],” Mortara said. “I was smart enough to get by without doing anything, and so I did nothing.”
In contrast with Mortara, SFFA appellants are high-achieving Asian Americans who have done everything right—and who feel cheated by the college application system on the basis of their race and wish to correct the flaw of race-conscious admission practices.
Given Mortara’s subpar high school record and his brother’s enrollment at the University of Chicago, his college application process raises questions as to whether Mortara possibly benefited from legacy preferences. “It is possible, but I have no way of knowing whether that’s true,” Mortara said. “But I don’t have any doubt that I belonged at the University of Chicago.” He further pointed out that acceptance rates for the University of Chicago were close to 50 percent and admitted that, had he applied today, he would never have received an offer of admission.
While Mortara was a high school slacker, he was anything but lazy in college. Mortara estimates that he closed out the Regenstein Library at least half the nights he spent on campus. He left Hyde Park fewer than 12 times throughout all four years of college.
“My idea of a date was studying at the Regenstein and maybe meeting…a woman that maybe I already knew and then say[ing], ‘Would you like to go for a yogurt at Ex Libris?’” he said.
Law school was an opportunity to start his life over. His college friends told him he would love it. He decided to go back to Hyde Park to attend the University of Chicago Law School, realizing how much he wanted to be in the neighborhood again.
After graduation, Mortara worked as a law clerk under Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas from 2002 to 2003. At the time, the affirmative action case Grutter v. Bollingerwas on trial, in which rejected white applicant Barbara Grutter accused the University of Michigan Law School for using race as a “predominant” factor in their admissions process.
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