In a decision that may cap years of litigation, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has overruled a federal district court and reinstated a voluntary, $129-million school-desegregation plan for metropolitan Little Rock, Ark.
In a 31-page ruling last month that consolidated 10 separate appeals, a unanimous three-judge panel of the appellate court said the lower court had erred in rejecting a desegregation settlement painstakingly crafted in 1989 by the Little Rock, North Little Rock, and Pulaski County school districts, local black citizens, and the state.
The appellate ruling also abolished the office of metropolitan school supervisor created by the lower court, and thus scrapped an integration blueprint the supervisor devised last year. However, the appellate panel established a new court-supervised desegregation-monitoring office and warned that judicial scrutiny would continue “for a long time.”
Key elements of the settlement plan reinstated by the judges include optional, interdistrict student transfers, more use of magnet schools and other interdistrict schools, and the expenditure of $129 million in state aid to integrate schools within the participating districts.
Under the plan, for example, the county district pledged to recruit Little Rock students to improve the racial balance in Pulaski schools. If progress in desegregating county schools proves elusive under the voluntary plan, mandatory steps can be sought, the appeals court noted in its opinion.
According to the appeals court, the fact that the desegregation settlement satisfied all sides in the case was crucial to the panel’s decision to reinstate it.
“We believe the district court erred by failing to give sufficient weight to that fact,” the judges declared. “The law strongly favors settlements. Courts should hospitably receive them.”
“This may be especially true in the present context: a protracted, highly divisive, even bitter litigation, any lasting solution to which necessarily depends on the good faith and cooperation of all the parties,” they continued. “As a practical matter, a remedy that everyone agrees to is a lot more likely to succeed than one to which the defendants must be dragged kicking and screaming.”
Lawyers in the case said the appellate ruling reduced, but did not entirely preclude, chances of further legal challenges.
The appeals court had allowed a group of five citizens to intervene in the case in support of the lower court’s decision and the work of the metropolitan supervisor. The group’s lawyer, John T. Lavey, said late last month that his clients had not decided whether to seek review of the appellate ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Mr. Lavey said his group filled an unusual role before the appellate court, since the former adversaries in the case were in agreement on the settlement. “Nobody was arguing the other side,” he said.
While overturning and criticizing the decision of U.S. District Judge Henry Woods, the appellate opinion praised the lower-court jurist for his “zeal and devotion” in pursuing “quality desegregated education.”
The panel similarly lauded the state for its financial support of the plan.
The Arkansas legislature and Gov. Bill Clinton provided funds “without being ordered by any court” to do so, the appellate judges noted, although they observed that state officials may have feared higher eventual costs if they did not act.
“However, ... enactment of the settlement bill, without precedent so far as we know in any other state,” the panel added, “was a significant step toward erasing the legacy of lawlessness that had marked the State of Arkansas’s initial reaction to the constitutional requirement of equal, integrated education.”
The appeals court also approved payment of legal fees to the black citizens’ lawyers, which the district court had disallowed. Costs of the fees are to be shared by the state and the school districts.
The current case began in 1982, but, as the appellate panel noted, the issues go back more than 30 years. In 1957, Little Rock captured national attention when Gov. Orval E. Faubus tried to bar blacks from public schools and President Eisenhower sent federal troops to keep the peace.
“It’s been a fight to desegregate, a long haul,” said Mr. Lavey, the lawyer for the five citizens allowed to intervene in the case. “At times, the litigation has been vitriolic.”
Recent skirmishes included efforts by the Little Rock system to force the other two districts to join in consolidation. The appeals court in 1985 denied the coercive consolidation bid, but found that interdistrict constitutional violations had occurred.
The appellate panel said its latest ruling “can lead to a period of calm in this case, perhaps even bringing the parties a happy issue out of all their afflictions.” If the effort succeeds, it said, “they should be able to devote more energy to education and less to litigation.”
The litigants expressed satisfaction with the decision.
Over all, “we believe the settlement approach was beneficial,” said John Walker, the lawyer for the black citizens who were a party to the settlement.
“We’re very relieved because we can move now to the implementation plan,” said Ruth Steele, superintendent of the Little Rock schools. Such a settlement “is most unusual,” she added. “It’s quite a milestone in this case.”
“It seems we finally got some justice,” said Bobby G. Lester, the Pulaski County superintendent. “I look for us to work really hard to make sure we all cooperate. We’ve been in court long enough.”