State says rights violated

A federal judge’s order for state officials to defend state voucher program funding and teacher evaluation laws in federal court is unconstitutional, attorneys for the Louisiana Department of Education say.

The order is an intrusion on state decision making, the state says in a brief filed in federal court in New Orleans.

The case involves the Tangipahoa Parish School Board’s argument that a new state law diverting state funds from the school district to voucher programs prevents the district from financially complying with court orders in its 47-year-old federal desegregation case.

The School Board requested an injunction halting implementation in the parish of the challenged provisions.

U.S. District Judge Ivan L.R. Lemelle, who oversees the desegregation lawsuit, ordered Education Superintendent John White, the Education Department and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to appear in court Nov. 26 to explain why the injunction should not be granted.

Education Department attorneys now say that order violates the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which strictly limits the circumstances in which a state may be sued in federal court.

The attorneys have asked Lemelle either to set aside his prior orders bringing the state into the federal lawsuit or to put the hearing on hold, pending the outcome of a broader state court case scheduled for trial Nov. 28.

The 11th Amendment bars federal courts from telling state officials how to comply with state law, Education Department attorneys Willa R. LeBlanc and Barbara Bell Melton argue in a brief filed Wednesday.

“The amendment is designed to protect the state government’s ability to exercise its sovereign functions without the interference of the judiciary,” the attorneys argue.

Courts also have held that the amendment bars suits that seek to tell the state how to use its money, the attorneys said.

“It would be an unfathomable intrusion into a state’s affairs — and a violation of the most basic notions of federalism — for a federal court to determine the allocation of a state’s financial resources,” the attorneys argue. “The legislative debate over such allocation is uniquely an exercise of state sovereignty.”

Although a state may consent to federal jurisdiction, the state of Louisiana has not done so in this case, the attorneys said.

In addition, the state is already defendant in a state court case in which the constitutionality of the state laws at issue will be determined, the attorneys said.

That state court case, filed by the Louisiana School Boards Association and state teachers unions, is scheduled for trial Nov. 28 in 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge. Its outcome may make the Tangipahoa Parish School Board’s motion for an injunction in the desegregation case moot, the state attorneys argued.

Desegregation plaintiff attorney Nelson Taylor also requested an injunction in the federal case.

Taylor argues that the state’s new regulations for hiring, evaluating and terminating teachers conflict with court orders regarding the recruitment and retention of black teachers in Tangipahoa Parish.

Implementation of those state laws should be halted in the parish until the district achieves unitary status, Taylor said.