Posted by Brendan Fischer on June 27, 2013

The Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation is one-for-two in legal challenges to civil rights and racial equality this term, with the U.S. Supreme Court striking down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in one case bankrolled by Bradley, and in another, remanding an affirmative action case to a lower court, turning back the Bradley-backed challenge. The cases represent the latest in the Bradley Foundation's long-term effort to dismantle the gains of the civil rights era.

In the 5-4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the Court effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act, which had required states with a history of legalized racial discrimination to get pre-approval from the federal government before making changes to either voting laws or procedures. One day earlier, in Fisher v. University of Texas, the Court punted on a challenge to affirmative action, sending the case back to a lower court rather than outright prohibiting the consideration of race in college admissions.

The challenges to both the Voting Rights Act and university affirmative action programs were organized by the same activist, who has acknowledged that he receives funding from the Bradley Foundation -- a Milwaukee-based funder of right-wing causes that has long targeted racial equity.

Same Group and Donors Behind Fisher and Shelby County Cases

The group that brought both challenges is the Project on Fair Representation, a legal defense fund dedicated to reversing race-based legal protections and whose website says it devotes "all of its efforts to influencing jurisprudence, public policy, and public attitudes regarding race and ethnicity." The Project was founded and led by one person, Ed Blum, who coordinated the challenges in both the Fisher and Shelby County cases.

Blum has likened his role in high-profile litigation to "Yenta the matchmaker." "I find the plaintiff, I find the lawyer, and I put them together, and then I worry about it for four years," he said.

Blum urged Shelby County, Alabama, to bring its Section 5 challenge after the Department of Justice blocked its effort to dilute the voting power of its growing African-American population. He also connected with Abigail Fisher, a white student who was denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin and claimed it was because of her race. Blum was also behind the last Voting Rights Act challenge to make it to the Supreme Court, Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder.

The Project on Fair Representation covered the legal fees in both the Shelby County and Fisher cases using funds filtered through the secretive Donors Trust, which has been described as a "Dark Money ATM" since it stealthily funnels money from the Kochs, Bradley and other funders to organizations in the right-wing network.

Typically, the identity of Donors Trust funders remain secret, but two of Blum's donors have been revealed: the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, which gave at least $100,000 to bankroll Blum's latest legal challenges, and the Searle Freedom Trust, which for years has funded the Project on Fair Representation.

Bradley, which is headed by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's campaign chair Michael Grebe, hands out $30 million in grants each year, and its support of Blum's group is only one example of its long-term effort to roll-back both voting rights and affirmative action.

With Bradley-Funded Challenge, Court Eviscerates Voting Rights Act

"Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions," Roberts wrote in the Shelby County case, joined by four other conservative justices. "African- American voter turnout has come to exceed white voter turnout in five of the six States originally covered by §5 [of the Act], with a gap in the sixth State of less than one half of one percent."

But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the four dissenting justices, said: "In the Court's view, the very success of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act demands its dormancy." Invoking the words of Martin Luther King, Jr, she wrote: "'The arc of the moral universe is long,' he said, but 'it bends toward justice,' if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion. That commitment has been disserved by today's decision."

"Hubris is a fit word for today's demolition of the VRA."

Bradley's role in attacking voting rights is not limited to its support for Blum and his Project on Fair Representation.

In advance of the 2012 elections, Bradley was revealed as the secret funder that had bankrolled giant billboard ads, exclusively in neighborhoods of color, stating "Voter Fraud is a Felony" during a period when voter ID was on hold in Wisconsin and many were confused as to its status. It funded groups that employed James O'Keefe, whose heavily-edited undercover videos hyped voter fraud allegations and helped take down ACORN, which had helped millions of low-income people register to vote. It also funded the legal advocacy group that represented O'Keefe.

Both Bradley and Searle have funded the American Legislative Exchange Council, which promoted voter ID laws in states across the country. And in the wake of Shelby County, ALEC-inspired voter ID bills and other restrictions will likely take effect across the South. As many as eleven percent of registered voters don't have government-issued photo ID and would be unable to vote under the laws, with those percentages even higher among communities of color and students.

Bradley also backs state-based conservative think tanks like Wisconsin's MacIver Institute, which have advanced unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud to drum-up support for restrictive laws like voter ID. And it has given millions to groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society, which have long hyped voter fraud and called for more restrictive voting measures.

Shelby County Means ALEC-Inspired Voter ID Law Will Be Implemented in Multiple States

As J. Christian Adams writes in a publication from the Bradley-funded Federalist Society: "those states that fall under Section 5 will be able to enact voter identification laws without seeking clearance from the federal government."

Indeed, just hours after Shelby County was published, Texas' Attorney General announced the state's ALEC-inspired voter ID law, which could disenfranchise up to 800,000 registered voters but was blocked by a federal court under Section 5 last year, would immediately take effect; so will the state's problematic redistricting map, which had been blocked by a federal court due to its discriminatory impact.

Mississippi voters will also be subjected to a voter ID requirement, since state officials need not wait for federal pre-clearance to implement a 2011 constitutional amendment. South Carolina's voter ID law, which was initially stalled by the DOJ, will also take effect. A strict voter ID law passed in Virginia this year -- which likely would not have been pre-cleared under Section 5 -- can also be implemented without federal approval.

True the Vote, whose poll watchers have been accused of voter suppression and which was awarded a $35,000 grant from Bradley in 2011 (later rescinded because the group hadn't received its 501(c)(3) status), stated:

"This is without doubt a step in the right direction for our Republic."

Hiccup for Bradley's Long Fight Against Affirmative Action

The Bradley-funded effort to end affirmative action in the Fisher case was less successful than the attack on Section 5. The challenge to the University of Texas' admissions program was kicked back to a lower court for further proceedings, albeit with instructions that the court more strictly scrutinize the university policy. Affirmative action supporters didn't celebrate the decision, but breathed a sigh of relief that the Court didn't entirely ban consideration of race in college admissions.

The case was only one front in the Bradley-funded war on affirmative action.

It has been a top funder of the Center for Individual Rights, a right-wing legal organization that has challenged affirmative action laws across the country (and where Ann Coulter worked as a litigator in the 1990s). CIR litigated two of the most significant affirmative action cases in recent decades, Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, both decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003. It had a major victory in the 1996 Hopwood v. Texas case in the 5th Circuit that radically reshaped diversity programs at the University of Texas -- potentially even banning recruitment of people of color -- until the decision was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. The group represented the sponsors of Proposition 209, the 2001 California referendum that eliminates affirmative action in state programs, among other efforts. Bradley has given at least $2 million to CIR since 1989.

The Bradley Foundation has also given millions to Ward Connerley's anti-affirmative action "American Civil Rights Institute," including $700,000 in 2001 to support the Proposition 209 ballot initiative, and in 2005 awarding Connerley a $250,000 "Bradley Prize." And it has consistently funded the National Association of Scholars, giving millions to the group whose mission is fighting affirmative action by building scholar networks and organizing conferences and panels on college campuses across the country.

Bradley has also given over one million dollars to the "Center for Equal Opportunity," whose activities include traveling the country urging Republican legislators to crack down on affirmative action programs, which it claims constitute "reverse discrimination."

In 2011, a Center for Equal Opportunity representative claimed the University of Wisconsin was guilty of "severe racial discrimination" -- a questionable assertion given that just 2.6 percent of the university's 42,180 students are African-American and 3.8 percent are Hispanic -- prompting protests from students already energized in opposition to the agenda of Governor Scott Walker, whose campaign chair and transition team leader was Bradley CEO and President Michael Grebe.

Bradley Foundation Is Not Going Away, and Neither Are These Fights

The Bradley Foundation is one of the largest "philanthropic" organizations in the country and has funded an array of organizations advancing right-wing causes, ranging from school privatization (as documented by One Wisconsin Now at BradleyWatch.org) to Islamophobia, union-busting, "tort reform" and other issues. Between 2001 and 2010 it gave over $350 million to hundreds of institutions, which is nearly as much as the seven Koch and Scaife family foundations combined.

(See a full list of Bradley Foundation contributions here).

Which means the Bradley Foundation is not going anywhere anytime soon -- and battles over racial equity, voting rights, affirmative action and a range of other issues will continue to be funded and fought for years to come.


This article has been updated.

Brendan Fischer

Brendan Fischer is CMD's General Counsel. He graduated with honors from the University of Wisconsin Law School.