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U.S. Must Bear Legal Burden in Drive To Close Integration Suits, Judge Says

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The U.S. Justice Department may proceed with its efforts to seek dismissals of nine Georgia school-desegregation cases, but only if it assumes the full legal and financial burdens involved in proving that the districts are legally desegregated, a federal judge has ruled.

The Aug. 24 ruling is the first in what has become a test case for the department's announced intention to seek to close as many as 220 desegregation cases that have remained inactive for several years.

The nine Georgia districts initially agreed to cooperate with the department. But the districts backed down after lawyers representing black plaintiffs in the suits indicated that the actions would be contested in what could become lengthy and costly legal proceedings.

Department lawyers argued in a status conference this summer that they had a right to request a ruling in the cases despite the districts' unwillingness to proceed. (See Education Week, Aug. 3, 1988.)

'Paramount' Concern of Districts

In the recent ruling, U.S. District Judge Wilbur D. Owens Jr. noted that the cost of the legal action to the districts "seems to be of no concern to the United States, but, of course, it is the paramount concern of these school boards to whom this is an unnecessary exercise."

While granting the department the right to pursue the dismissals, Judge Owens also held that the federal government would bear the entire burden of proof, including "the responsibility of representing each school board without expense to the school board in all discovery, pretrial, and trial matters."

Mark R. Weaver, a spokesman for the department's civil-rights division, said last week that "we're glad that the judge doesn't appear to disagree with us on the legal principles involved."

"We'll continue to review his opin8ion as we decide how to proceed,'' he added.

60 Days To Act

Under Judge Owens' order, the department has 60 days from the date of the ruling to choose a course of action. If it chooses not to proceed, Judge Owens said, he will rule on whether to return the cases to the inactive docket, or to dismiss them and leave existing permanent injunctions in place, as had been agreed to between the nine districts and the the naacp Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc.

"I hope the government will not waste taxpayers' money by undertaking the burden of holding a useless hearing," said Norman Chachkin, a lawyer for the Legal Defense Fund, which represents black plaintiffs in the cases.

Judge Owens also chastised the department in his opinion, saying its position was "totally inconsistent with the adage 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it."'

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