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Court Avoids Deciding on Interventions

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The U.S. Supreme Court last week rebuffed an effort by the state of Texas to get blanket legal consent for intervening in troubled school districts without facing federal review under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The high court ruled unanimously that the state's legal case was premature because Texas is not currently poised to invoke either of the sanctions at issue in its 1995 district-intervention law--the appointment of a special master or a management team.

"Texas has not pointed to any particular school district in which the application of [the special-master or management-team sanction] is currently foreseen or even likely," Justice Antonin Scalia said in the opinion in Texas v. United States (Case No. 97-29).

Justice Scalia advised the state that if it believes that its sanctions do not run afoul of the Voting Rights Act, "it should simply go ahead" and implement them without seeking federal review.

The state could then be sued under the voting-rights law by the U.S. attorney general or by a private citizen, but then Texas would have the proper vehicle for resolving the legal questions over its intervention law, Justice Scalia said.

State Disappointed

Texas is one of several states with histories of racial discrimination in election practices that have a burden under the Voting Rights Act of getting federal approval, or "preclearance," for any new law that affects voting.

The state argues that the temporary appointment of a master or management team with limited powers over a school district does not constitute a change in voting under the federal law and thus should not require preclearance from the Department of Justice.

The state has appointed one management team under the 1995 state intervention law, for the Wilmer-Hutchins district near Dallas.

The Justice Department took 90 days to grant preclearance for the sanction.

The state argued that it does not want to face such delays in the future. It filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Washington seeking a blanket ruling that the sanctions do not constitute changes in voting under the voting-rights law.

A special three-judge federal district court ruled last year that it could not grant such a blanket ruling without an actual intervention being at stake in the case. The Supreme Court affirmed that ruling.

"The operation of the statute is better grasped when viewed in light of a particular application," Justice Scalia wrote.

Also, state courts in Texas should be given the opportunity to construe the intervention law, he said.

In a written statement, Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Moses said he was disappointed by the high court ruling. But his agency may just follow the course suggested by Justice Scalia and intervene in districts without seeking federal preclearance, he added.

"We believe that the state does have a right to intervene in school districts when circumstances warrant," he said.

Debbie Graves-Ratcliff, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, said that "when the situation is so dire we feel the need to appoint a master or management team, we want to proceed quickly."

But the Justice Department and civil rights groups argue that the appointment of a special master or management team does affect voting and thus requires federal approval in advance.

The Justice Department has argued that the appointment of a master or management team potentially allows for the "takeover of a school board such that the board cannot perform the functions that are its reason for being."

For example, a master or management team under the state intervention law may reallocate spending priorities in a district budget, the department noted.

Battle Postponed

Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund had argued in a friend-of-the-court brief that, at the very least, Texas should not be able to get a blanket ruling exempting all potential appointments of a master or management team from voting-rights preclearance.

Those groups have become increasingly wary that district takeovers by states are targeting urban or other heavily minority districts. ("Racial Issues Cloud State Takeovers," Jan. 14, 1998.)

Jacqueline Berrien, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York City, applauded the high court for refusing to give Texas what it wanted.

"The court resisted efforts to have it predict for all time whether this [intervention] statute will affect voting," she said. "You really can't decide that in the abstract."

The Supreme Court's ruling means that Texas will have to fight its voting-rights battle in a specific case.

"We are essentially looking for a test case," Ms. Graves-Ratcliff of the state education agency said.

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