Law Update

Appeals Court Chastises Judge in Desegregation Case

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A federal appeals court has upheld a judge’s decision to forbid advocates of neighborhood schools to intervene in a 40-year-old desegregation case in a Louisiana school district, but not before chastising him for excessive personal involvement in the case.

A three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit court unanimously agreed last month that the Evangeline Parish chapter of the National Association of Neighborhood Schools, or NANS, lacked legal standing to challenge a court-ordered desegregation plan.

Yet the panel also criticized the judge who handled the dispute in federal district court in Lafayette, La., for his “heavy-handed case-management style.”

Members of the NANS chapter had sought to enter the case because they objected to a 2003 plan for reorganizing the 6,300-student Evangeline Parish school district in south-central Louisiana. The plan was aimed at complying with a 2001 consent decree approved by U.S. District Judge Tucker L. Melançon.

The panel held May 17 that Judge Melançon was right to reject the chapter’s argument that the district should no longer be allowed to assign youngsters by race because it had already dismantled its former system of operating separate schools for black and white students.

At the same time, the opinion said Judge Melançon’s handling of the case “suggests personal involvement in the case that approaches more of an administrative than a judicial role.”

The panel criticized a gag order the judge imposed on administrators drafting the plan, as well as his contact with board members who had voted against the plan. Such actions helped “create a perception, whether justified or not, that the board forfeited its role to the district court,” the ruling said.

“We caution the court,” it added, “to limit itself to traditional judicial decisionmaking rather than school administration, and to refrain from day-to-day management of its decrees.”

Vol. 24, Issue 41, Page 10

Published in Print: June 22, 2005, as Appeals Court Chastises Judge in Desegregation Case

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