By Nate Raymond
(Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department said on Friday it might formally enter a lawsuit accusing Harvard University of discriminating against Asian-American applicants as the agency probes its admissions policies for potential civil rights violations.
The department disclosed its plan in a brief urging a federal judge in Boston to not allow the Ivy League school to file pre-trial court papers and documents provisionally under seal.
Harvard had cited the need to protect the privacy of applicants and students as well as the inner workings of its admissions process, arguing that various documents should be initially filed under seal pending the judge's review.
The Justice Department said it opposed Harvard's request, joining Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), the group behind the case, which has urged the disclosure of "powerful" evidence showing Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Harvard is violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
"Harvard College is responsible for protecting the confidential and highly sensitive personal information that prospective students - none of whom asked to be involved in this dispute - entrust to us every year in their applications," Harvard spokeswoman Rachael Dane said in a statement.
"We are committed to safeguarding their privacy while also ensuring that the public has the access that it is entitled to under the law," Dane said.
William Consovoy, a lawyer for SFFA, declined to comment.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled universities may use affirmative action to help minority applicants get into college. Conservatives have said such programs can hurt white people and Asian-Americans.
The Justice Department under Republican President Donald Trump has been investigating a complaint by more than 60 Asian-American organizations which say Harvard's policies are discriminatory because they limit the acceptance of Asian-Americans.
"The public funds Harvard at a cost of millions of dollars each year, and thus has a paramount interest in any proof of these allegations, Harvard's responses to them, and the Court's resolution of this dispute," Justice Department lawyers wrote in Friday's filing.
The department said that while it had obtained much of the case's evidence through its own separate probe, it wanted to review the court records as it considers whether to file a "statement of interest" arguing a position in the case.
A hearing before U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs is scheduled for Tuesday.
Harvard says its admissions policies comply with U.S. laws and that it has worked to increase the financial aid it offers to ensure economic, as well as racial, diversity in its classes.
(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Richard Chang and James Dalgleish)