Justice Officials Seek To End Many U.S. Integration Suits
Washington--The Justice Department is planning to ask federal judges to dismiss as amny as 220 school-desegregation cases against districts that have demonstrated compliance with court orders and consent decrees for at least three years, according to top department officials.
The action could end an era of court supervision over the operations of many districts in the Southeastern states that dates from the late 1960's and early 1970's, when efforts to dismantle dual school systems for whites and blacks reached a peak.
Districts in other parts of the country may also be affected, although in smaller numbers.
The department was scheduled to complete an administrative review of the more than 300 school-desegregation cases in which it is currently involved by the end of last week, the officials said.
"We have a large number of cases that are very old and have had no complaints registered for a number of years," William Bradford Reynolds, assistant attorney general for civil rights, said in an interview last week.
"We want to give the districts back to the educators and allow them to deal with the educational problems that are lurking back there."
As a result of the review, the department has already filed motions for dismissal in 17 cases involving districts in Georgia. More than a hundred similar motions are likely to be filed in the coming months, officials said.
Lawyers representing minorities who have been permitted to intervene in many of the cases criticized the department's initiative, saying the dismissal of injunctions in the suits would make it easier for officials in the districts involved to dismantle desegregation plans.
"To seek the wholesale dismissal of these orders at the end of the Reagan Administration is a highly irresponsible act that demonstrates no concern for the rights of black children in these districts," said Norman Chachkin, a lawyer with the naacp Legal Defense and Education Fund Inc., which represents black parents in a large number of cases that were initially filed by the Justice Department.
"We don't care if the cases are dismissed, so long as the courts don't vacate the permanent injunctions" that bar districts from operating dual systems for white and black students, he said. "But it's clear that's what Justice officials want to do."
The cost of contesting the department's actions is also likely to strain the resources of the Legal Defense Fund and other organizations that represent minority groups in the cases, he added.
"Just what they're doing in Georgia straps our resources," he said, referring to the motions for dismissal that the department has already filed.
In its review, the department identified two types of cases that will be targeted for dismissal: those on inactive dockets, in which federal judges have ruled that districts were being operated in a "unitary'' manner; and those without such formal rulings, but in which districts have complied with court orders or court-approved settlements for three or more years.
A third category includes cases in which "we've concluded that it's not the right time yet to make this request of the parties," Mr. Reynolds said.
Although the number of districts in each category had not been tabulated as of March 10, the department in 1985 identified 117 districts that it contended had been declared unitary. It is not clear how many cases might fall into the second and third categories.
In 1985, the department also listed 47 cases in which it had been involved but which had not yet been dismissed.
School-desegregation experts estimate that the department has been involved in some 500 such cases, either as plaintiffs, intervenors, or through the filing of "friend of the court" briefs.
Evaluating 'Full' Compliance
The department will attempt to free districts from court supervision "only as long as we can satisfy everybody that there has been full compliance with court orders--that the district is indeed operating a unitary system," Mr. Reynolds said.
"We're not aware of any outstand4ing complaints" of discrimination against the districts whose cases are being targeted for dismissal, added Nathaniel Douglas, chief of the education section in the department's civil-rights division.
"If it turns out there is a legitimate complaint, we'd look into it," he said. "If in fact there is a problem, we would say that's a basis for not having the district dismissed."
Civil-rights activists do not dispute that many of the cases targeted for dismissal involve districts that have faithfully abided by the terms of their court orders.
The crux of the matter, they say, is whether dismissal of the cases will make it substantially more difficult to prove future allegations of discrimination by school officials.
To date, the U.S. Supreme Court has not issued a definitive ruling detailing when and under what circumstances a desegregation case can be brought to an end. One of the major issues on which lower federal courts differ is whether districts may be permanently enjoined from engaging in discriminatory behavior at the time a case is dismissed.
Justice Department officials believe that the Constitution and federal laws provide adequate assurances that districts freed from court supervision will not discriminate against minorities.
"All of these school districts will be under an obligation not to break the law," Mr. Reynolds said. "If they do, we'll haul them back into court, and I doubt they will want to go through this kind of litigation again."
But Mr. Chachkin of the Legal Defense Fund disputed this view, saying, "The plaintiffs are entitled to permanent injunctive relief to ensure they do not lose the constitutional protections they fought for and won in these cases."
Shifting Burden of Proof
"The Justice Department is taking an approach to these cases that's totally different than the protection plaintiffs in other types of civil cases get," he said.
In cases where a permanent injunction is on file, he said, districts would bear the burden of proving in future court proceedings that new allegations of illegal discrimination were untrue.
On the other hand, if such injunctions are dissolved and minorities must file a new lawsuit when raising new allegations, he said, they would bear the burden of proving that officials intended to discriminate in their actions.
Such intent is not easy to prove, Mr. Chachkin noted.
Intent Versus Effects
The burden of proof issue arose in a 1986 case affecting the same Georgia school districts that the department is now targeting for dismissal.
The case involved charges that districts statewide discriminated against blacks by assigning a disproportionate number to special-education classes.
Although the districts ultimately won the case, Mr. Chachkin said, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled that the districts bore the burden of proving that their actions did not have a discriminatory intent.
The 11th Circuit Court ruled that, although the districts had been found to have been operating unitary systems in 1974, they were not "fully unitary" because the proper legal procedures had not been followed.
The Justice Department maintains in its recent filings, however, that the Georgia districts have been declared unitary.
Districts Will Cooperate
School officials in the 17 Georgia districts have all agreed to cooperate with the department's efforts to have their cases dismissed, according to federal officials.
But the department's initiative came "from out of the blue," said a lawyer for one of the districts.
Dismissing the longstanding court cases "is not going to help anybody, but it's not going to hurt anybody either," said Scott Chew, the lawyer for the Macon County Public Schools, one of the 17 districts.
All 17 are involved in a statewide desegregation suit filed in 1969 by the Justice Department against 81 districts that were not previously involved in desegregation litigation.
The department has already freed the Macon County schools from all reporting requirements, Mr. Chew said, so the permanent injunction has caused the district no inconvenience.
Mr. Chew has a different understanding of the department's action than was described by Justice officials in interviews with Education Week and in their court filings.
"In my opinion, dismissing the case doesn't terminate the order," he said, referring to a permanent injunction that bars the 81 districts from operating racially segregated school systems.
But in the motions it has filed in the 17 cases, the department explicitly requests that "the general injunction imposed in 1969 should be dissolved and that termination of all jurisdiction and dismissal of this cause of action... is appropriate at this time."
Justice officials deny some critics' suggestions that the timing of the review is related to the fact that a new Administration will take office next February.
"A move is on to clean off the books," acknowledged Debra Burstion-Wade, a spokesman for the department. But it was sparked, in part, she said, "by judges themselves seeking to find out what the status is" of the cases on their inactive dockets.
In one such instance last October, U.S. District Judge William M. Acker, who supervises eight inactive cases in Alabama, issued a "show cause" order "essentially saying to the government, 'Tell me why I shouldn't close these cases,"' Mr. Douglas said.
In his order, Judge Acker wrote: "In theory there must be an end to this litigation, so that parties who in the future have complaints of racial discrimination against any one of these entities must present them, if at all, in separate cases."
"We can no longer pretend that we're dealing with the educational problems of black children simply by putting in place a comprehensive transportation remedy," Mr. Reynolds said. "The quality of education in school systems is still a problem--it was there 20 years ago, and we didn't come to grips with it."
"We have to face up to reality," he added, saying the entire education system "needs an overhaul" and "not an easy solution that comes from the law books."