Justices Give Rights Group Standing To Bring Suit Against State Agency

By Tom Mirga — May 30, 1984 5 min read

Washington--The U.S. Supreme Court opened the way last week for a major civil-rights group to sue the California Department of Education over claims that it acted in a manner that contributed to segregation in the Los Angeles public schools.

The Court’s action came in a case involving an attempt by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to draw the state into its longstanding court battle to desegregate Los Angeles’s schools. When the organization first tried to bring the suit into federal court three years ago, a federal district judge ruled that the state board of education and the state superintendent could not be sued.

Last September, a federal appeals court overturned the lower court’s ruling, holding that a 10-year-old federal education law abrogates the state board’s and state superintendent’s immunity under the 11th Amendment from suits brought in federal court.

Ironically, the law cited by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in its ruling is the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, commonly known as the Esch Amendment. The law is best known for its provision allowing federal courts to order busing for desegregation purposes only as a remedy of last resort.

The law, however, also states that “no state shall deny equal educational opportunity to an individual on account of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin” and permits individuals denied such opportunities to institute civil actions in federal courts “against such parties, and for such relief, as may be appropriate.”

“Since the California State Board of Education and the California State Department of Education fall within the act’s definition of ‘state educational agency,’ and Congress ... explicitly provided for desegregation suits against this type of agency, we hold that the 11th Amendment immunity of the California agency defendants has been abrogated,” the Ninth Circuit Court said in its opinion in California State Department of Education v. Los Angeles Branch naacp (Case No. 83-892).

Unprecedented Interpretation

In its motion seeking a review of the case, the state education agency unsuccessfully attempted to convince the Court that the suit merited review because no federal court had ever interpreted the Esch Amendment in this fashion.

“The decision of the lower court raises serious questions involving federalism and the balance between state and federal relations,” the state agency said. “Additionally,4sensitive questions concerning federal-court jurisdiction and power are left partially or totally unanswered.”

According to Joseph A. Duff, who represents the naacp in the case, the lawsuit will be sent back for a rehearing before a federal district judge. He added, however, that action in the case will most likely be delayed pending a decision by the Ninth Circuit Court in a related case involving the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Last September, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court ruled that the naacp could continue to press its desegregation claims against the district but must limit those claims to acts of intentional segregation since September 1981. (See Education Week, Sept. 14, 1983.) The full appeals court agreed to reconsider the three-judge panel’s decision and is expected to rule in the case, naacp v. Los Angeles Unified School District, by July.

In other school-desegregation-related activity:

St. Louis Desegregation

Twenty-four states plan to file a friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court on behalf of the state of Missouri in its suit seeking to overturn parts of a federal district judge’s order in the landmark St.8Louis metropolitian school-desegregation case.

On April 20, the state of Missouri filed papers with the Court asking it to overturn the Feb. 8 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit that, because the state has been found liable for segregation in the city of St. Louis, it should be required to pay for the voluntary transfer of students between the city and 23 suburban school districts. (See Education Week, Feb. 15, 1984.)

The appeals court rejected the state’s and the Reagan Administration’s argument that Missouri should not be forced to cover the cost of interdistrict transfers because it has never been found liable for contributing to segregation in the suburban districts.

According to lawyers in the offices of the Missouri and Arkansas state attorneys general, the brief to be filed by the 24 states will contend that the Eighth Circuit Court’s decision “imposes enormous financial burdens on a state without properly finding that such expenditures are required to redress the effects of the alleged constitutional violations.” It will also argue that “careful judicial scrutiny of a remedial plan is especially necessary when it is the product of a negotiated agreement that included political subdivisions of a state but not the state itself.”

The case is Missouri v. Liddell (No. 83-1721).

Hispanic Students

A federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled earlier this month that the San Jose (Calif.) Unified School District has “consistently maintained or intensified [the] segregation” of Hispanic students since 1962.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s May 17 decision said the district intentionally segregated its schools, noting in particular a policy requiring students to attend schools nearest their homes.

“The board’s stubborn adherence to this policy in the face of clearly4established state law holding desegregation to be a matter of overriding educational importance suggests that the board was motivated ... by a desire to avoid desegregation,” the appeals court said.

The court also noted that the district failed to redraw attendance zones to reduce racial isolation when 13 schools were demolished for earthquake safety and new ones were built.

Approximately 30 precent of the district’s students have Spanish surnames and nearly 80 percent of them are concentrated in schools in the northern section of the 16-mile-long district.

School Closings

The naacp has strongly criticized a plan by Prince George’s County, Md., school administrators to close822 public schools in response to a federal court’s desegregation order.

In papers filed with the U.S. District Court in Baltimore earlier this month, the civil-rights organization also criticized the school board’s argument that efforts to bring all 114 schools in the district within court-imposed guidelines for racial balance would cause “white flight” and thus destabilize currently desegregated schools.

The proposal can be rejected by U.S. District Judge Frank A. Kaufman, who ruled last June that the district should be returned to the jurisdiction of the court until it achieves a suitable level of desegregation. Under his ruling, the district is required to ensure that none of its schools has an enrollment that is more than 80-percent black or less than 10-percent black.

A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 1984 edition of Education Week as Justices Give Rights Group Standing To Bring Suit Against State Agency