High Court Agrees To Hear Case Involving Racially Motivated

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Reassignment of Coach

Copyright 1988 Washington--The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether an appellate court misinterpreted key civil-rights laws in a suit involving the racially motivated dismissal of a Dallas high-school football coach.

The two cases accepted by the Court, Jett v. Dallas Independent School District and Dallas Independent School District v. Jett (Case Nos. 87-2084 and 88-214), stem from a black principal's decision in 1983 to replace his school's white coach with a black coach. The action occurred after the predominantly black school's football team lost a game for the state championship.

The coach, Norman Jett, claims he was relieved of his duties because the principal, Frederick Todd, felt a white could not be an effective recruiter of black junior-high athletes. Mr. Jett also alleges that Mr. Todd was upset over remarks attributed to him in the local press concerning the impact of collegiate academic-eligibility requirements on black high-school athletes.

Mr. Jett's dismissal was upheld by Linus Wright, the former Dallas superintendent who now serves as U.S. Undersecretary of Education. The coach then sued the principal and the district, claiming that his firing violated his constitutional rights to free speech, due process, and equal protection under the law. He sought damages for those violations under Sections 1981 and 1983 of Title 42 of the U.S. Code.

A jury ruled in favor of the coach and ordered the principal and the district to pay him $850,000. The federal district judge hearing the case later reduced that amount to $650,000.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled in 1986 that the principal was liable for damages but that the district was not. According to the three-judge panel, prior Supreme Court rulings barred the imposition of damages against the district under Sections 1981 and 1983 because it was not determined at trial whether it was the district's "policy or custom" to support racially motivated dismissals.

The court sent the case back to the district judge and ordered him to make such an inquiry.

Both sides have appealed that ruling. The coach contends that the "policy or custom" requirement for both civil-rights laws conflicts with other appellate-court rulings. The district, meanwhile, argues that the case should be sent back to the appeals court for a determination of whether its superintendent or its board is the "final policymaking authority" in such disputes.

The High Court is expected to hear arguments in the case next spring.

In other action, the Justices last week declined to review lower-court rulings in the following cases:

National Gypsum Company v. Environmental Protection Agency (No. 88-241). A federal appeals court rejected the company's arguments that the Environmental Protection Agency failed to comply with the Congress's mandate "to develop a scientific approach to the problems of asbestos in school buildings"4when it issued regulations last year for the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986.

Arons v. New Jersey Board of Education (No. 88-261). An appellate court upheld a state law that bars "lay advocates" who represent families in special-education administrative hearings from receiving payment for such services.

Melin v. North Dakota (No. 88The state supreme court ruled that prosecutors could appeal a jury's verdict that a mother and father did not break North Dakota's criminal truancy law by teaching their son at home. The parents argued8that appeals in criminal matters are barred by the Fifth Amendment's double-jeopardy clause.

Loudermill v. Cleveland Board of Education (No. 87-2099). A federal appellate panel ruled that school officials did not violate the due-process rights of a security guard who was found to have lied about a previous felony conviction on his job application when they gave him only three days in which to respond to their charges or be fired. In an earlier phase of the case, the Supreme Court ruled in 1985 that school employees are entitled to hearings before they are dismissed.

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