Supreme Court Lets Stand DecisionsOn Tenn. District's Election System

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The U.S. Supreme Court declined last week to disturb two lower court rulings that declared a school-board-election system for a Tennessee district violates the constitutional principle of "one person, one vote."

The justices, in Walkup v. Shelby County Board of Commissioners (Case No. 97-1009), declined without comment to review an appeal from state officials that defended the system.

Under the system, voters in Memphis help elect the school board for the surrounding Shelby County district, even though Memphis has its own separate school system.

The state argued that the Tennessee Constitution requires elected county officials, including county school board members, to be elected by all county voters.

But a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled that the system violates federal voting-rights principles.

Memphis residents made up the majority in six of the seven county school board voting districts.

City voters effectively control the county board of education even though they do not live in the county district, the lower courts said.

Indian Taxes

Separately last week, the Supreme Court settled a dispute in Alaska over school construction taxes by ruling that nearly 2 million acres of American Indian land do not qualify as "Indian country" under federal law.

The case involved an attempt by the Neets'aii Gwich'in tribe in the village of Venetie above the Arctic Circle to collect taxes on the construction of a school financed by the state. The tribe tried to collect $161,000 in taxes in tribal court from the state, the building contractor, and the Yukon Flats school district.

The state sued in federal district court, which ruled that under a 1971 act of Congress, the tribe did not have the power to tax non-members.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit overturned the district court last year and ruled for the tribe.

But in a unanimous ruling Feb. 25 in Alaska v. Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government (No. 96-1577), the Supreme Court ruled that the tribe could not tax the state and the district for the building of the school.

Justice Clarence Thomas said that the 1.8 million acres was not a traditional Indian reservation and also did not meet the 1971 law's requirements that the land be specifically set aside for the use of Indians.

Special Education

Also last week, the high court declined to review lower-court rulings that said parents in a special education case could not represent their child in federal court because they were not lawyers.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires children to be represented by a lawyer in federal court. The requirement "helps to ensure that children rightfully entitled to legal relief are not deprived of their day in court by unskilled, if caring, parents," the appeals court said.

The high court appeal was Devine v. Indian River County School Board (No. 97-929).

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