Pa. High Court Curbs Judge During Desegregation Trial

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In a move that surprised and puzzled legal experts and educators alike, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court stepped into Philadelphia's school-desegregation case at a time when a lower-court judge was only part way through a stormy trial in the 25-year-old legal battle.

The decision last month stemmed from a request by lawyers for Gov. Tom Ridge. Since it was added to the lawsuit last fall, the state has sought to have Commonwealth Court Judge Doris A. Smith thrown off the case, arguing that she is biased.

The high court did not immediately take the lawsuit away from Judge Smith as the governor had asked. But it ordered her to reach a final decision within 90 days and confine her deliberations to the desegregation issues at hand.

In its latest bid to have Judge Smith removed, the state accused her of letting the trial digress by focusing on how school-funding levels in the city compare with those in its suburbs.

The question now before the judge is whether the state and the city must sharply increase funding to the 211,000-student district. In legal papers filed last week, the district sought an extra $128 million in state aid in 1996-97 to help it comply with earlier court orders.

The state picks up about 60 percent of the district's $1.45 billion budget, with most of the rest coming from the city. The district cannot levy taxes.

Lawyers for Governor Ridge, a Republican, and Mayor Edward Rendell, a Democrat, each argue that the other is responsible for assuring that the district has enough money to satisfy court orders on desegregation and school reform.

Judicial Bias Alleged

In its terse ruling July 3, the high court did not indicate whether it has been influenced by the state's arguments.

Lawyers in the complex case disagree about the decision's import. Edward Mannino, a lawyer for the state, views it as a sharp blow to Judge Smith's authority, while lawyers for the plaintiffs do not.

Some lawyers said the ruling may do little more than move the case to the high court faster than through the appeals process.

"There are a bunch of opinions on what it means," said Germaine Ingram, the school district's general counsel. "We're waiting to see what the implications will be."

Vol. 15, Issue 41

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