Appointed School Boards OK Under Voting Rights Act, Federal Appeals Court Rules

By Mark Walsh — April 11, 2018 3 min read
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A federal appeals court has rejected a challenge under the Voting Rights Act to Chicago’s mayorally appointed school board, holding that nothing in the text of the 1965 federal law requires any public office to be elective.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago, unanimously ruled against the challenge by a group of voters who allege that the Illinois law establishing that the mayor of Chicago appoint the board of education deprives black and Latino citizens of their right to vote.

Other school boards in Illinois are elected, but Chicago has never had an elected board, although there have been some stirrings recently to change that. For many years before 1995, the mayor needed the consent of the city council for board of education appointees. But since that year, the mayor has had the sole authority to appoint the seven-member board that oversees the 371,000-student district.

While the vast majority of the nation’s 14,000 school boards are elected, some of the largest systems have boards appointed in some form by the city’s mayor.

The Chicago lawsuit challenged the city’s appointed board under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which says that a violation can be established by proof that “the political processes leading to nomination or election in the state or political subdivision are not equally open to participation by members” of a protected class, such as racial minorities.

The suit argued that Chicago’s heavy concentration of minority residents means that the state law establishing an appointed Chicago board deprives 45 percent of all African-Americans and 37 percent of Latinos in Illinois of the right to vote for a school board, while depriving only 11 percent of white Illinois residents of the same opportunity.

But a federal district court dismissed their suit, and in its April 10 decision in Quinn v. State of Illinois, the 7th Circuit court panel upheld the dismissal.

“The Voting Rights Act has been on the books for 53 years, and as far as we are aware no court has understood Section 2 to require that any office be filled by election,” said the opinion by U.S. Circuit Judge Frank H. Easterbrook.

He observed that appointed school boards in Cleveland and Detroit have been upheld against Voting Rights Act challenges (by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati), and that the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991 made a passing reference in a case about elected judges that “Louisiana could, of course, exclude its judiciary from the coverage of the Voting Rights Act by changing to a system in which judges are appointed.”

“What is true of judges is true of school boards,” Easterbrook said in the Chicago case. “Whether having an appointed board is ‘good government’ or good for pupils (plaintiffs say no, defendants say yes) is irrelevant to the Voting Rights Act, which just does not speak to the question whether a particular governmental function (such as public education) may be part of a larger unit (such as a city) and as a result not be separately elected.”

While “Black and Latino citizens do not vote for the school board in Chicago,” Easterbrook wrote, “neither does anyone else. Every member of the electorate is treated identically, which is what Section 2 requires.”

The 7th Circuit panel also rejected the plaintiffs’ challenge to the appointed board under the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Easterbrook said the U.S. Supreme Court had rejected such a challenge in a 1967 decision, Sailors v. Board of Education of Kent County; and that in a 1999 ruling the 7th circuit had rejected an equal-protection challenge to the 1995 Illinois law.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.