School desegregation litigation revives in St. Martin Parish

A school desegregation case that St. Martin Parish officials thought had been closed in 1974 is coming back to life in federal court after years of dormancy.

The case was originally filed in 1965, part of wave of lawsuits to force school integration in the civil rights era.

There are several desegregation lawsuits still active throughout the U.S., drawn out litigation that often comes with federal oversight of a school system’s efforts to diversify.

But the St. Martin Parish School Board had considered their desegregation case long resolved until 2009, when a federal judge reviewed the old court filings and questioned whether it had ever been officially closed.

“For whatever reason, the chief judges have been examining their dockets to see if any of these cases were still open,” said attorney Jack Burson, who has represented the St. Martin Parish School Board in legal wrangling over the issue for the past five years.

The Justice Department and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund both argue the St. Martin Parish school system should still be under federal oversight.

The case has been on hold since 2012, pending the School Board’s appeal of U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Foote’s ruling that the case remains open. It is now moving forward again following a 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision this month upholding Foote’s earlier finding.

What that means for the school system is not clear.

The legal dispute so far has focused on the narrow point of whether the case is open or closed.

With that issue seemingly settled, it’s uncertain what the school system needs to do to get it closed again.

Neither the NAACP nor the federal government have made any allegations about specific problems in St. Martin Parish schools. “We have not assessed where we go from here,” said Baton Rouge attorney Gideon Carter III, local counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

The local U.S. Attorney’s Office declined comment on the case.

Carter said he has heard complaints from the Breaux Bridge area about race-based discipline issues and racially influenced student assignment to certain schools. But the litigation has not delved into any of the nuts-and-bolts issues of school desegregation, such as whether minorities have access to the same facilities as whites or the racial balance of faculty and staff.

“There has really been no pleading at this juncture that alleges anything wrong,” Burson said.

Burson said he expects the next big step will be for the school system to pull together the records needed to build an argument for closing the desegregation case. System officials would be looking to gather evidence that race does not play a role in decisions on staffing, facilities, discipline, student assignment and other areas.

St. Martin Parish Superintendent Lottie Beebe said the recent court activity has not affected the school system.

“The Court said that, though the case is still pending because of the failure of the previous judge to issue an order of dismissal, the school system may be unitary and entitled to dismissal at this time,” she wrote in an email. “The staff is working on information to be used by the Board’s attorneys in a motion to the court seeking such ruling. In the meantime, the St. Martin Parish School System will continue to offer quality educational services to all of its students.”

The recent appellate decision offers the board hope of a quick resolution, however it might unfold.

“The 1974 order clearly contemplated that the case would be dismissed within a matter of years, not decades,” the three-judge appeals panel wrote in an 11-page ruling.

U.S. District Judge Rebecca Doherty, who looked at the case before Foote, began the review of the court file in 2009. She wrote in a 2010 minute entry that it appeared the desegregation issues had been resolved in the 1970s, but she invited comment from anyone who disagreed with her assessment.

The Justice Department and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund responded that it appeared the school system was still under federal oversight, despite a 1974 court order the School Board argues brought the case to a close.

Judge Foote considered the competing arguments in 2012 and ruled against the School Board, finding the 1974 court order ambiguous.

Evangeline, St. Landry and Lafayette parishes have all resolved long-running desegregation cases over the past decade, often with controversial school reorganization plans.