Court Relieves Tennessee of Integration Costs
A federal appeals court has ruled that the "sovereign immunity" clause of the U.S. Constitution restricts the power of federal courts to order states to help pay for the desegregration of school districts.
While the federal court system "clearly has the power to prohibit segregation ... in no way does it follow that the judiciary has any corresponding authority to dictate the specific financial arrangements under which the costs of integrating the schools shall be handled," wrote Judge David A. Nelson for a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
The Dec. 30 ruling overturned a district-court order requiring the state of Tennessee to reimburse the Nashville-Davidson County school district for 60 percent of the desegregation costs it has incurred since March 1981.
The decision is binding only within the Sixth Circuit, which comprises Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee. However, the ruling has already been cited by both the U.S. Justice Department and the state of Missouri in briefs filed last month in the Kansas City, Mo., desegregation case, which is pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
Lawyers for the Nashville-Davidson County school board have filed a motion seeking a rehearing before all 15 judges on the Sixth Circuit bench. If the board's request is denied, the case, Kelley v. Metropolitan County Board of Education of Nashville and Davidson County, could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Several states, including Indiana, Missouri, and New York, are currently involved in litigation over their responsibility to pay for districts' desegregation plans. Financial claims against states have become an increasingly important part of desegregation lawsuits that seek extensive--and expensive--educational remedies in addition to student busing.
Experts in school law and civil rights last week differed on whether the new ruling, if upheld, would have a significant impact on pending or future lawsuits against states.
David Tatel, a Washington-based lawyer who represents several districts that are seeking desegregation funding from states, said the facts underlying the Nashville decision "are very different from all these other cases."
"As I understand the facts," he explained, "the only thing requested from the state was reimbursement for desegregation relief that was already in place. In every other [pending] case, the school board is seeking funding for remedies that are beyond its ability to provide."
Another prominent desegregation expert, Gary Orfield, said the ruling would be "catastrophic" if it was upheld, because it would protect states from the consequences of violating the Constitution.
"That would call for a real radical redefinition of the law in many areas," he said, adding that "the whole law of the country since" the ratification of the 13th and 14th Amendments after the Civil War "has been in an exactly opposite direction."
Lawyers representing the state of Missouri, which has been found liable for unprecedented costs in both the Kansas City and St. Louis desegregation cases, refused to discuss for the record the implications of the recent decision on their pending appeals.
In a brief filed in January with the Eighth Circuit in the Kansas City case, however, they said that the district court, by shifting some of the costs of desegregation from local taxpayers to the Missouri treasury, "is engaging in an undue interference with state internal economy and administration." The state's lawyers asked the Eighth Circuit Court to consider the Nashville ruling, noting that the Sixth Circuit judges saw "no justification for an unelected judiciary making policy judgments as to how the tax burden shall be allocated."
U.S. Justice Department lawyers also declined to comment on the case, although they cited it last month in a "friend of the court " brief filed on behalf of Missouri's position in the Kansas City case.
The dispute at issue in the case be8fore the Sixth Circuit Court began in 1981, when the Nashville-Davidson County board, the defendants in an ongoing desegregation lawsuit, filed a third-party complaint against the state of Tennessee, the state board of education, and certain state officials.
Sovereign Immunity Defense
As amended in 1983, the complaint asked, in essence, that the state be required to pay the full cost of implementing desegregation remedies ordered by a district court starting in 1971. The costs were estimated at about $6 million annually.
The district court relieved the state of any liability for costs incurred by the district before 1981, when the complaint was filed against the state. But it ordered the state to assume 60 percent of the costs incurred after that time.
The appeals panel, in justifying its decision to overturn the district court, drew on Supreme Court decisions concerning the 11th Amendment dating back more than 100 years. Much of their reasoning, however, was based on decisions handed down during the 1970's and 1980's.
The 11th Amendment is widely acknowledged to be one of the more murky areas of constitutional law. While it expressly protects states only from lawsuits filed by "citizens of another state, or by citizens or subjects of any foreign state," it has long been interpreted by the courts to bar the federal judiciary in some instances from hearing suits against a state filed by its own citizens or political subdivisions.
In the Court's 1977 decision in Milliken v. Bradley, the landmark Detroit desegregation case, the justices held that a state's 11th Amendment sovereign immunity may be abridged under an exception that "permits federal courts to enjoin state officials to conform their conduct to requirements of federal law, notwithstanding a direct and substantial impact on the state treasury."
But because desegregation remedies were already in place in Nashville, the Sixth Circuit panel ruled, the dispute between the district and state officials "is a contest not about desegregation, but about money."
"Courts were never intended to become the final arbiters in the budgetary process at any level of government, local, state, or federal," the panel said. "That is the job of the people's elected representatives."
In a footnote to its decision, the appeals panel noted that while the Sixth Circuit Court itself had required the state of Ohio to share desegregation costs in both the Cleveland and Columbus cases, "the defense of sovereign immunity was not considered or ruled on in either case."
The court also stated that an "independent reason" for denying Nashville's claim against the state was that while the desegregation suit was first filed in 1955, the state of Tennessee was not found to be a "constitutional wrongdoer" until 1985, well after it had dismantled its laws mandating separate schooling for blacks and whites.