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U.S. justice airs concerns about using race in picking lawyers

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Supreme Court justice expressed concerns on Monday about how a federal judge required plaintiffs' lawyers to take race and gender into account in picking their legal team.

The court declined to review the case in question, a challenge to a class action settlement that resolved antitrust claims against Sirius XM Radio Inc.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote an opinion describing as "highly unusual" a district court judge's practice of ensuring that the lawyers who represented the plaintiffs have staff working on the case who reflected the race and gender of the Sirius customers.

In his opinion, Alito said that "future review may be warranted" if Judge Harold Baer, the district judge in the Southern District of New York who oversaw the case, was to continue the practice. In a future case, a class member objecting to a settlement based on how counsel are chosen could have standing to pursue such a claim, Alito added.

Sirius was sued after it was formed by the merger of Sirius Satellite Radio Inc and XM Satellite Holdings Inc, a move that gave the new company a monopoly on satellite radio services.

The class action was settled in August 2011 after Sirius agreed to freeze its prices for a fixed period and pay the plaintiffs' lawyers $13 million in attorneys' fees and expenses.

Lawyers representing Nicolas Martin, a class member who objected to the settlement, claimed among other things that Baer had acted inappropriately by bringing race and gender into the settlement agreement.

In a December 2012 decision, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Martin did not have standing to challenge Baer's order.

The case is Martin v. Blessing, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 13-169.

(This story has been corrected to fix name to Nicolas from Nicholas in paragraph seven)

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller and Andrew Hay)

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