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Friday, January 18, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Marco DeFunis, student in 1971 UW bias suit, dies at 52

Seattle Times staff reporter

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A Seattle attorney who made history when he was still an undergraduate at the University of Washington by filing one of the country's first reverse-discrimination lawsuits died Wednesday night, two weeks shy of his 53rd birthday.

Marco DeFunis suffered a heart attack while running on the indoor track at the Jewish Community Center on Mercer Island, said his wife, Lucia.

In 1971, Mr. DeFunis gained national attention when he challenged the admissions policies of the UW Law School. Mr. DeFunis, who was white, said he had been denied entrance in favor of less-qualified minorities. Although neither side could ever claim victory, the lawsuit's reverberations were felt on university campuses across the country.

Mr. DeFunis won his case in Superior Court and began attending classes. The state Supreme Court reversed the lower court, but Mr. DeFunis stayed in school while pressing to the U.S. Supreme Court the constitutional question of unequal treatment.

The high court sidestepped the case; by the time the justices heard it in 1974, Mr. DeFunis was near graduation with only one quarter of law school remaining. The matter was dismissed as moot.

But in his order allowing him to finish at the UW, Justice William O. Douglas wrote, "The Equal Protection Clause commands the elimination of racial barriers, not their creation, in order to satisfy our theory as to how society ought to be organized."

Douglas' admonition in the DeFunis case went to the heart of another reverse-discrimination suit, this one in 1978 against the University of California, Davis. Allan Bakke, a white student, had sued the university and won after he was rejected twice for medical school in favor of less-qualified applicants.

The court split 5-4 in favor of Bakke, although the justices said some consideration could be given to race in public-school admissions.

Mr. DeFunis had passed the Washington state bar exam in 1974 with "a tremendous sense of relief and exhilaration," according to news reports. (In this state, the passage of Initiative 200 in 1998 eliminated state preference for women and minorities in education, hiring and contracting.)

Mr. DeFunis first practiced law at the Seattle firm Jennings & Felix. In 1978, he and a friend, David Balint, started their own firm.

"He was a kind man, a generous man, and he had a very soothing effect on his clients," said Lucia DeFunis.

A specialist in personal-injury law, Mr. DeFunis recently learned he had been nominated by his peers and selected as a 2001 Super Lawyer by the magazine Washington Law and Politics.

An avid reader who owned "hundreds and hundreds of books on religion, politics, history, economics and philosophy," he was constantly thirsting for greater knowledge, said his son, Bension DeFunis, 24, who is now in his last semester at Cornell University's law school.

A graduate of Franklin High School, he was a past president of the Seattle chapter of B'Nai B'rith, a national Jewish organization, and was active in the Orthodox Sephardic community, supporting both the Sephardic Bikur Holim synagogue in Seattle and Northwest Yeshiva, a private school also in Seattle. He also served as legal counsel for the Seattle Hebrew Academy.

Mr. DeFunis ran five days a week at the Jewish Community Center and did not have a history of heart problems, his wife said.

Along with his wife and son, Mr. DeFunis is survived by his daughter, Ariela, 20, a junior at the University of Washington, his parents, Mike and Betty DeFunis of Seattle, and his sister, Diane Lacker of Mercer Island.

Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. today at Evergreen Washelli, 11111 Aurora Avenue North in Seattle. Burial will be at the Sephardic Brotherhood Cemetery.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com.

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