Judge Decrees Conn. Is Not Liable for Bias

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Rebuffing a novel legal argument with potentially broad implications, a judge ruled last week that the Connecticut constitution does not obligate the state to remedy school segregation it did not cause.

In a decision that stunned many observers, Judge Harry Hammer of the state superior court in Hartford sided squarely against the plaintiffs challenging the racial isolation of students in that city and its suburbs.

The judge's 72-page decision barely addressed civil-rights lawyers' arguments that the state constitution outlaws all school segregation, regardless of whether government action brought it about.

Instead, Judge Hammer weighed the evidence against more established legal tests and held that the plaintiffs' lawyers failed to show the state had acted, even subtly, to encourage the racial segregation of schools in the Hartford area.

State officials last week rejoiced at the decision. "I was surprised and pleased at the firmness of the decision," Gov. John G. Rowland told reporters, adding that what he had expected was "a blurry decision, one that would have required some legislative action."

"This ruling," he said, "confirms what we have been saying all along--that clumsy social engineering dictated by the courts is no way to improve our schools."

Plaintiffs To Appeal

Governor Rowland and Theodore S. Sergi, the acting commissioner of education in Connecticut, pledged last week to continue to support the voluntary, regional integration efforts started by the state largely in response to the case. They added that they believe such policies are best pursued by elected officials rather than the courts.

The judge's decision also was welcomed by many suburban community activists, including Mary Grace Reed, the chairwoman of the school board of Farmington, a town outside of Hartford. She expressed fears that "any other decision would have opened up a Pandora's box," with the court potentially imposing mandatory regional busing or otherwise infringing on local school control.

The lawyers for the plaintiffs pledged last week to promptly take the case to the state supreme court. One of the lawyers, John C. Brittain, called the judge's logic "rather bizarre" and accused the judge of ignoring important constitutional issues and evidence.

"It really is a sad day for children in Hartford," said William L. Taylor, a Washington lawyer who specializes in school desegregation and serves as vice chairman of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a national advocacy group.

"The effect of this decision is to harm the educational opportunities of lots of children," Mr. Taylor said.

Two Questions, One Answer

Of the 26,000 students enrolled in the Hartford schools, more than 93 percent are black or Hispanic. The district is one of 16 that, combined, account for 80 percent of the state's minority enrollment. There are 166 districts in the state.

Minority students account for 26 percent of the 509,000 students enrolled in Connecticut's public schools. A hundred districts are less than 10 percent minority, according to state officials.

State officials have readily conceded that poor and minority students are overwhelmingly concentrated in urban districts. But, they have contended, the state's efforts have been directed toward curing this problem, not causing it, and the state is under no legal obligation to carry out additional desegregation.

The lawsuit decided last week, Sheff v. O'Neill, was filed on behalf of minority and white children in Hartford and its suburbs. Although it did not propose specific remedies, it argued that the state has a responsibility to do more to promote desegregation.

The lawyers for the plaintiffs pursued a two-pronged strategy. On one level, they advanced the traditional argument, derived from federal law, that actions by the state had contributed to the economic and racial segregation of its schools.

On another level, they pursued a strategy that was unusual for a desegregation case but was similar to those used in other states in lawsuits seeking more equitable school funding. They argued that the state constitution is far less tolerant of school segregation than is the U.S. Constitution, which the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted as allowing racial segregation not caused by government action.

The Connecticut constitution, in assuring all students an equal education, creates an affirmative duty to remedy any racial or economic segregation that prevents them from getting it, the lawyers argued. (See Education Week, 5/6/92.)

Judge Hammer chose not to even address this state constitutional argument. He said he could not do so because the plaintiffs' lawyers had failed, to his satisfaction, to establish any state responsibility for the racial segregation found in the state.

'A Wake-Up Call'

The lawyers for the plaintiffs expressed frustration last week at the judge's refusal to look beyond federal precedent and craft a ruling grounded in the state constitution. "That was our point in bringing the case," said one lawyer, Wesley W. Horton.

Even David J. Armor, an expert on segregation who testified on behalf of the defense, said he was confused about the judge's decision. The ruling "is not even within the framework" of the arguments put forth by the plaintiffs, said Mr. Armor, an adjunct professor of public policy at George Mason University in Virginia.

But State Sen. Kevin B. Sullivan, a Democrat who represents West Hartford, suggested that Judge Hammer had to use such reasoning because he had so little state precedent to go on.

Mr. Sullivan and others welcomed the decision, saying it had spared the state the kind of strife that court-ordered desegregation had brought to other cities.

And after the decision, Governor Rowland offered the victorious state attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, a congratulatory bottle of champagne.

Elizabeth Horton Sheff, a Hartford city council member and the mother of Milo Sheff, the student plaintiff whose name appears on the suit, said last week that the sight of state officials toasting the decision appeared to unleash anger and activism from her constituency. "Judge Hammer's decision has resulted in a wake-up call for the community," she said.

The plaintiffs and their lawyers last week expressed little faith in the state's voluntary desegregation efforts, noting that, out of 11 regions asked to craft regional-desegregation plans, only three saw their plans win local approval.

State officials pointed out, however, that the Governor has proposed a three-fold increase in funding for voluntary integration programs. Sen. Judith K. Freedman, a co-chairwoman of the state legislature's joint education panel, said she remained committed to finding ways to address racial isolation and improve the education of minority children.

"I don't think this issue will ever be done with, no matter what the court says," Ms. Freedman said.

Vol. 14, Issue 30, Pages 1, 16-17

Published in Print: April 19, 1995, as Judge Decrees Conn. Is Not Liable for Bias
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