LAFAYETTE — A federal judge has ruled that a decades-old desegregation lawsuit against the St. Martin Parish School Board remains open, despite a lack of court activity in the case since the 1970s.
The ruling does not necessarily mean the St. Martin Parish school system will see any changes, but the decision opens the door for possible scrutiny from the U.S. Justice Department and others.
The School Board maintained that the desegregation suit was dismissed in 1974.
The Justice Department and attorneys for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund argued that the case was never technically closed.
In a 32-page ruling filed last week, U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Foote agreed, citing, among other things, the ambiguity of the 1974 ruling that the School Board said closed the case.
Foote made clear in the ruling that it was not a judgment on whether the St. Martin Parish school system is following desegregation guidelines.
But the ruling does raise the possibility of future court review of desegregation issues, such as the racial balance of staff and students and whether all students have access to school facilities of comparable quality.
Baton Rouge attorney Gideon Carter III, who is involved in the case as local counsel for the National Association for the Advanced of Colored People Legal Defense Fund, said there have been allegations in St. Martin Parish involving several desegregation issues, including staffing and facilities.
Those allegations are being investigated, Carter said.
St. Martin Parish School Superintendent Richard Lavergne said Monday that he had not seen Foote’s ruling and referred comment to board attorney Jackson Burson.
Burson was out of the office Monday and could not be reached for comment.
The old St. Martin Parish desegregation court case drew renewed attention in 2009, when the chief judge at the time assigned the case to U.S. District Judge Rebecca Doherty, according to court records.
Doherty wrote in a 2010 minute entry that it appeared the case had been resolved in the 1970s, but she also invited any parties that had been involved in the litigation to notify her if they disagreed.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Justice Department both responded that the St. Martin Parish school system was technically still under federal oversight.
No court hearings have been set in the case, and the School Board could appeal Foote’s ruling.
Evangeline, St. Landry and Lafayette parishes have all resolved long-running desegregation cases over the past decade, often with controversial school reorganization plans.