MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A federal judge ruled Tuesday that six Memphis suburbs cannot start public school systems, saying that any actions taken under a state law that initially cleared the way for the new districts are void.
U.S. District Judge Samuel Mays issued a 65-page ruling saying that the state law that allowed voters in the six Shelby County municipalities to decide if they wanted their own school districts violates the Tennessee Constitution because it applies only to one county.
Mays’ ruling said he would consider arguments on other aspects of the case next month. A trial scheduled for Jan. 3 on claims that the suburbs’ decision to seek their own school districts was made partly on racial grounds was continued.
Voters on Aug. 2 approved referendums to form school districts in Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington. The suburbs want to break away from the Shelby County school district and avoid the planned merger between the larger, struggling, majority-black Memphis school system and the smaller, more successful, majority-white county system.
The Commercial Appeal will not be forced to release comments and identifying information about those who commented on stories related to the public controversies over the reorganization of Shelby County’s public schools, the newspaper reports. U.S. Dist. Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays issued a ruling Thursday night rejecting the Shelby County Commission’s motion to compel The Commercial Appeal to release that information. The commission’s lawyers from the firm Baker Donelson had filed a motion last week asking the judge to force The Commercial Appeal to comply with a July subpoena request asking for the identities of all online commenters to 45 stories that ran between Nov. 19, 2010, and July 12, 2012.
In denying the motion, Mays wrote that the information would not be relevant to the case.
“The Commission’s claim that the information it seeks concerning the opinions of the general readership of The Commercial Appeal is relevant to determining whether racial considerations were a motivating factor in the Tennessee General Assembly’s decision to enact the Municipal School Acts is not well taken,” the judge ruled.
“The information sought by the Commission is not relevant to the underlying issue to be decided and is not an appropriate subject of discovery in this case.”
The commission claimed that harvesting some comments and identifying information about the commenters could help them prove that new state laws enabling new municipal school districts in suburban Shelby County were motivated at least in part by racially discriminatory intent.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A federal judge on Thursday decided to allow residents of six Memphis suburbs to vote on forming city school districts, but he left open the option of voiding the election later.
Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington are seeking to form their own public school systems and avoid becoming part of a combined Memphis-Shelby County system upon a scheduled 2013 merger. The six municipalities, which have a combined population of about 171,000, are currently part of the Shelby County Schools system but want to break away.
A state law passed this year allowed the municipalities to schedule the vote to form their own school systems. But the Shelby County Commission sued to stop the vote, arguing that the state law violates the Tennessee constitution.
U. S. District Court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays ruled after a day-long hearing Thursday that the referendums can continue and he will decide the law’s constitutionality later. Early voting for the Aug. 2 election starts Friday, and Mays noted some absentee ballots have been cast.
State lawmakers walked a legislative tightrope on the municipal school district bills, trying to balance the political reality of opposition to new school districts elsewhere in Tennessee to the legal requirement that the bills must apply to more than just Shelby County.
More from the Richard Locker report: That balancing act led to the passage in April of the two bills written to allow Memphis suburbs to proceed with referendums this year on whether to create municipal school districts. But precisely where the two new laws apply, and the legislative debate that shaped them, have emerged as the central focus of the latest legal battle over new municipal districts in suburban Shelby County.
U.S. Dist. Court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays indicated in a Monday status conference on the County Commission’s effort to halt the upcoming school referendums that the hearing he’ll hold Thursday will focus on the constitutionality of the two statutes enacted by the General Assembly in the closing days of the 2012 legislative session. Early voting in the Aug. 2 referendums is set to begin Friday in Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown and Millington.
The issue is whether the statutes, which were written to pave the way for the referendums and subsequent municipal school board elections to be held in 2012, apply only to Shelby County, in violation of Article 11, Section 9 of the Tennessee Constitution — as alleged by the County Commission’s lawsuit — or whether they could apply elsewhere in Tennessee as proponents of the new districts contend.
While Judge Mays acknowledged that halting the referendums would be a “heavy burden,” he also told the 23 lawyers assembled in his courtroom for the conference that, “It does seem a shame for a bunch of people to go out in good faith and vote and come to find out when you look at the statute, you can’t have an election because the statute is invalid. That gives me pause.”
But the same questions were a major factor in the legislature’s debate, and the main reason why it took them several weeks to pass.
Attorneys for the County Commission told the judge this week that they could provide him a DVD of the legislative debate. Lawyers challenging and defending state statutes have for decades relied on tape recordings of legislative committee hearings and floor debates to determine legislators’ intent in passing laws under court challenge.
After nine months of argument and acrimony, after a $1 million referendum and another $1 million in legal costs, the end to Shelby County’s schools consolidation standoff came quickly Wednesday, reports the Commercial Appeal. The settlement U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays approved and began reading in his courtroom just before 3 p.m. calls for a 23-member unified countywide board to take over Oct. 1. It will oversee the winding down of operations of Memphis City Schools and the currently all-suburban Shelby County Schools, while also assuming responsibility for adopting a transition plan for a consolidated school system that begins with the 2013-14 school year.
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, who appeared shortly before the deal was reached to give his assent, said the agreement prevents what could have been more years of legal and civic quarrels over schools.
Following his Aug. 8 order clarifying many legal issues, Mays held mediation sessions that ran most of Friday, Monday and Wednesday in order to hammer out a deal.
“The lawyers and the court have reached what I firmly believe to be a fair and equitable resolution of this controversy,” said Wharton, a longtime trial lawyer who was Shelby County mayor for seven years before winning the city post in 2009. “In many instances had it not been for the wisdom of (Judge Mays) and wisdom and patience of the many seasoned attorneys on this case, it would have dragged on for years.
From the Commercial Appeal:
A federal judge ended the first round of the school-consolidation legal battle Monday by ruling that the Memphis City Schools charter was properly surrendered in February and that the current all-suburban-member Shelby County Board of Education is unconstitutional because it lacks Memphis representation.
U.S. District Court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays also ruled valid a new state law, known as Norris-Todd, aimed at guiding the merger of MCS and Shelby County Schools with the appointment of a 21-member transition committee.
Mays said consolidation must be completed in time for the beginning of the 2013-14 school year. MCS and SCS currently have about 150,000 enrolled students combined.
Mays directed the parties involved in the lawsuit — MCS, SCS, the Shelby County Commission, the Memphis City Council, the city of Memphis and the Tennessee Department of Education — to submit by Friday ideas about how to create a countywide school board giving Memphis proportional representation. Mays will discuss the case with the parties today. SCS filed the lawsuit in February.
See also Jackson Baker, who observes the judge follows the exact timetable set for the merger in legislation passed by the General Assembly earlier this year and known as the Norris-Todd law.