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Supreme Court Lets Desegregation Plan Stand

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The U.S. Supreme Court last week turned aside an appeal from the state of Missouri seeking an end to a state-financed desegregation plan in St. Louis.

The high court on March 2 declined without comment to review the strongly worded appeal written by Missouri Attorney General Jeremiah W. Nixon, who has aggressively sought to rein in the expensive desegregation programs the state has paid for in St. Louis and Kansas City.

Jeremiah W. Nixon

The appeal in Missouri v. Lidell (Case No. 97-888) concerned an interdistrict-transfer program that sends some 13,000 inner-city black students into suburban schools and 1,500 white students into the city at state expense. The state says the program costs more than $100 million a year.

The state also was rebuffed last year when it asked lower federal courts to bring the program to a close. Last September, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, based in St. Louis, said it would be premature to end the state's financial support for the 1997-98 school year, citing the appointment of an arbitrator in the long-running desegregation case. ("Mo. Loses Bid To End St. Louis Desegregation Plan," Oct. 8, 1997.)

In its appeal to the high court, the state argued that the lower courts had created "a perpetual interdistrict remedy machine" and that the St. Louis district and the black plaintiffs have no incentive to use negotiations to "bring this funding windfall to a halt."

The 42,000-student district and the black plaintiffs were joined by the Clinton administration in briefs urging the Supreme Court to reject the appeal. The U.S. Department of Justice argued that because the school year is already more than half over, the state's appeal was essentially moot.

Lawyers for the black plaintiffs said that the settlement process is progressing and that the state legislature is weighing its own resolution. Legislation is pending before the Missouri Senate that would continue some state funding of the transfer program after the court case ends.

Immunity Reaffirmed

In other action last week, the Supreme Court last week ruled for the first time that local legislative officials are immune from civil suits resulting from their legislative duties. The March 3 decision came in a case the National School Boards Association said could have implications for school board members.

"The principle that legislators are absolutely immune from liability for their legislative activities has long been recognized," wrote Justice Clarence Thomas in the unanimous ruling in Bogan v. Scott-Harris (No. 96-1569).

The high court overturned a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, which had found Daniel Bogan, the mayor of Fall River, Mass., and another city employee liable for retaliating against Janet Scott-Harris, a former employee of the Fall River Department of Health and Human Services, by eliminating her job.

In 1990, Ms. Scott-Harris planned to fire a city employee after complaints that the employee had made repeated racial and ethnic slurs about her co-workers. The employee persuaded several state and local officials, including Mr. Bogan, to reduce the punishment.

When Mr. Bogan prepared his budget proposal for fiscal 1992, he proposed cutting 135 city jobs, including Ms. Scott-Harris'. The City Council later passed an ordinance to eliminate her department.

Ms. Scott-Harris sued the mayor and several council members, saying they had stifled her First Amendment right to free speech.

Naomi Gittins, a staff lawyer for the NSBA, said the decision last week upholds a longstanding precedent of immunity from civil cases for legislators. But it leaves other means of recourse for people such as Ms. Scott-Harris who believe they have been wronged by legislators, Ms. Gittins added.

She pointed out that many school board members volunteer their services. "If they have to be worried about individual liability resulting from a legislative action, there will be fewer people who want to do it," she said.

Same-Sex Harassment

The high court also ruled last week that federal laws on sexual harassment, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, apply when the harasser and victim are members of the same sex.

In Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services Inc. (No. 96-568), the court reopened a suit filed by an oil-rig worker who claimed he was harassed by his male supervisor and other male employees.

The case is one of four involving sexual harassment that the Supreme Court has accepted this term. Of greatest interest to educators is a case concerning whether districts can be held liable under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 when a teacher seduces a student.

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