More than three decades after declaring the then-unincorporated Louisiana High School Athletic Association a public body, the state Supreme Court reversed course this week and said the now-incorporated LHSAA is a private corporation that is not subject to the Open Meetings Law and cannot be audited by the state.
The justices also struck down two state laws dealing with the LHSAA: a 1997 law that allowed private-school students to play sports outside their attendance zones under certain conditions, and a 2010 law that made home-schooled students eligible to play sports at LHSAA member schools.
When asked Thursday by email if the high court’s ruling would have any impact on LHSAA’s recent decision to have separate football championships for select (private or nonpublic, charter, magnet, laboratory and dual-curriculum) and nonselect (traditional public) schools, LHSAA Executive Director Kenny Henderson replied in an email, “On advice of our attorney, I have been advised to only do the press release and not comment on any more than that at this time.”
In declaring the LHSAA a private corporation, the Supreme Court reversed not only its own 1981 decision in Spain v. Louisiana High School Athletic Association, but also a Baton Rouge judge’s 2011 ruling that the LHSAA is a “quasi public body” for the limited purpose of state audit law.
“We are pleased to have the acknowledgement and clarification of our private, non-profit status from the Louisiana Supreme Court and look forward to continuing our mission to provide the very best in championship competition for our member schools, without the onerous burden of political meddling,” Henderson said in a prepared statement.
In an interview, Louisiana Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera said he is “very disappointed” the high court ruled his office cannot look at the LHSAA’s annual audit or audit the association’s books.
“I’m also concerned about the lack of transparency that will result from this ruling,” he said.
“There’s no sunshine. There’s no light.”
The Supreme Court said the 1997 and 2010 laws it struck down specifically and unconstitutionally targeted the LHSAA and not other similarly situated athletic associations operating in the state, such as the Louisiana Christian School Athletic Association, the Louisiana High School Rodeo Association and the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools.
The LHSAA claimed the 2010 law was enacted by the Legislature to reverse an eligibility ruling the association made in the case of a student-athlete who had been ruled ineligible under its bona fide move rule. The rule states that if a family moves from one attendance zone to another, it must be a legitimate move. The LHSAA contends the rule exists because some families pretend to move by renting an apartment, trailer or otherwise obtaining temporary housing so their child can attend a school outside the LHSAA attendance zone without losing a year of eligibility.
“We address controversial issues virtually every year, but we do it like every other private organization, within our own bylaws and under the direction of our own members,” Henderson said in his statement.
“Unfortunately some in the Legislature sought unconstitutional remedies when things didn’t always go their way. We … believe this ruling should settle the issue once and for all.”
State District Judge Todd Hernandez declared the 2010 and 1997 laws unconstitutional in late 2011. The high court affirmed the Baton Rouge judge in that respect.
But the justices reversed Hernandez’s ruling that the
LHSAA is a quasi public agency or body. The current justices also overruled the Supreme Court’s Spain decision, which dealt solely with the issue of whether the Louisiana Open Meetings Law applied to the then-unincorporated association.
Retiring Supreme Court Chief Justice Catherine “Kitty” Kimball, whose last day on the court was Thursday, wrote for the current court in its decision Tuesday that the justices who decided Spain “failed to explain how the LHSAA, independently formed by high school principals, constitutes a ‘committee or subcommittee’ of BESE or the parish school boards.”
The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and parish school boards are public bodies.
“When the LHSAA became a Louisiana corporation in 1988, it further separated itself from BESE and the parish school boards and any notion that it might be a committee or subcommittee thereof,” Kimball wrote.
The Supreme Court’s rulings Tuesday came in a lawsuit the LHSAA filed in late 2010 against the state, BESE and the state legislative auditor.
The LHSAA, which is funded primarily through payments, sponsorships, membership dues and ticket sales from hosting statewide sporting events, filed its suit not long after a state audit concluded that former LHSAA Commissioner Tommy Henry may have fraudulently spent thousands of dollars of association money, including as much as $50,000 on cigars. The LHSAA questioned whether the state should have been permitted to review its books.
Henderson said shortly after Hernandez’s ruling that he did not foresee the LHSAA doing away with either of the rules in the 1997 and 2010 laws. He said then that it would be up to the LHSAA’s executive committee to decide what to do once all appeals are final.