Court Rejects End of Desegregation for Tucson Schools

By Mark Walsh — July 19, 2011 2 min read
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A federal appeals court on Tuesday held that lower-court supervision of a desegregation decree for the Tucson, Ariz., school district, must continue in a case that began 37 years ago.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, unanimously overturned a 2007 ruling by a federal district judge declaring the Tucson school district “unitary,” or legally desegregated, despite the judge’s own findings that school system officals had not shown good-faith compliance with all aspects of a 1978 consent decree.

“We reverse the court below and order it to maintain jurisdiction until it is satisfied that the School District has met its burden by demonstrating—not merely promising—its good-faith compliance with the settlement agreement over a reasonable period of time,” said the 9th Circuit court in Fisher v. Tucson Unified School District.

The district was sued in 1974 by plaintiffs representing African-American and Mexican-American students. After more than a quarter-century of desegregation efforts, the federal district judge overseeing the case opened a proceeding in 2004 to decide whether it was time to end court supervision. Lawyers representing Mexican-American students objected, arguing that the district had failed to demonstrate its full compliance with student assignment provisions of the consent agreement.

In 2007, District Judge David C. Bury found the school system could be released from court supervision despite agreeing that the district had not fully complied with the consent decree in good faith. For example, the school district had failed to monitor the effectiveness of student-assignment plans and its efforts to recruit minority teachers, Judge Bury had found. But the judge said the district could demonstrate its good faith by working with other parties to develop “post-unitary” measures to continue desegregation efforts.

“The district court’s own findings are fatal to its determination that the School District has achieved unitary status,” the 9th Circuit court said. The court noted that U.S. Supreme Court precedents require that in making a declaration of unitary status and ending federal jurisdiction, a district court must determine that a school district has complied in good faith with the desegregation decree since it was entered and has eliminated the vestiges of past discrimination “to the extent practicable.”

“To be sure, district courts possess ample discretion to fashion equitable relief in school desegregation cases, to tailor that relief as progress is made, and to cede full control to local authorities at the earliest appropriate time,” the 9th Circuit court said. “Yet under our controlling precedent, the district court’s extensive findings as to the School District’s lack of good faith show that that time has not yet come to pass for Tucson.”

According to data on the Tucson school district’s Web site, the district’s enrollment of 53,000 students in spring 2011 was 60.6 percent Hispanic, 24.9 percent white, 5.7 percent African American, 3.9 percent Native American, 2.6 percent Asian American, and 2.4 percent multiracial.

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