“Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.
Trump Fifth Circuit judges James Ho. Don Willett, Kyle Duncan, Andrew Oldham, and Cory Wilson joined a dissent arguing that the full court should reverse a panel decision and dismiss a lawsuit contending that Mississippi’s public education system perpetuates illegal educational disparities that significantly harm African-American schoolchildren. Thanks to votes by other Republican-appointed judges, including Trump judge Steven Engelhardt, the full court rejected these arguments and declined to reconsider the panel ruling allowing the lawsuit to continue in its December 2020 decision in Williams v Reeves. The original panel ruling upheld by the full court included a Reagan appointee.
Four African-American mothers of Mississippi schoolchildren filed suit against state officials in 2017, contending that 1987 changes to the state constitution eliminating the requirement that the state establish a “uniform” system of public education have caused continuing “significant disparities in the educational resources, opportunities, and outcomes afforded to children in Mississippi based on their race.” Specifically, their complaint points out, the schools attended by the children are over 95% African-American, but less than “11% of the students at these schools are proficient in reading and math,” and the schools are “rated ‘D’” by the state department of education. This is in contrast to comparable predominantly white schools, the complaint notes, where “over 65%” of the students are proficient in reading and math.
The complaint further contends that the disparities “extend well beyond academic performance.” In marked contrast to predominantly white schools , the complaint continues, the plaintiffs’ children attend schools where “ceilings are covered in wet spots,” paint is “chipping off the walls,” pupils are “taught by inexperienced teachers,” and extracurricular activities are “limited or non-existent.” The complaint alleges that the removal of the word “uniform” from the constitution violated the 1870 state Readmission Act by which the state rejoined the union, and which prohibits any changes to the state constitution that “deprive[s]” any state resident of “the school rights and privileges secured” by the state constitution. The continued maintenance of that system, according to the complaint, has caused the mothers and their children to suffer these problems and a number of injuries. These include “illiteracy, a diminished likelihood of high school graduation, low rates of college attendance and college completion, and an increased likelihood of future poverty.”
A federal district court dismissed the case, claiming that it violates the state’s sovereign immunity and the Eleventh Amendment. A three-judge Fifth Circuit panel, including Reagan nominee Grady Jolly, partially reversed, holding that the mothers should be able to try to prove their claims that state officials have maintained a public education system based on the state’s elimination of the word ”uniform” from its constitutional guarantee to provide a system of public education, in violation of the Readmission Act.
On a 9-8 vote, the full Fifth circuit declined to rehear the case. Judges voting against rehearing included three nominated by President George W Bush, including prominent conservative Chief Judge Priscilla Owen, as well as Trump judge Engelhardt.
Trump judges Willett, Duncan, Oldham, and Wilson, however, joined all or part of a sharp dissent by Judge Edith Jones. The dissent called the mothers’ complaint a “strange case” that would improperly “pave the way” for federal court orders to produce a “major restructuring of state school funding.” The dissent claimed that Mississippi’s sovereign immunity and the Eleventh Amendment barred the mothers’ claims, and that even if they did not, the mothers had no right to “enforce the Readmission Act.” Accordingly, the dissent concluded, the full court should have reconsidered and dismissed the case so that it did not “subject the State to further litigation and travail.”
The original panel decision had answered these arguments. The complaint is not seeking an order by a federal court to produce “major restructuring” of the state school system, but instead requested only a “declaratory judgment” that the continued enforcement of the state constitution that “removed the uniformity clause” violates the Readmission Act. The state had not raised in the district court the assertion that the Act could not be enforced by the plaintiffs, and the panel ruled that the lower court should consider that argument “in the first instance” before an appellate court does. And the panel carefully analyzed the sovereign immunity and Eleventh Amendment arguments, and concluded that to the extent that the plaintiffs are seeking ”declaratory relief” going forward because of state officials’ “ongoing violation of federal law — the enforcement of a state constitutional provision that conflicts with the federal Readmission Act–”, the claim was clearly “permissible” under a principle “recognized by the Supreme Court that has existed alongside our sovereign-immunity jurisprudence for more than a century.”
As a result of the panel ruling and the decision of the full Fifth Circuit not to disturb it, the plaintiffs can proceed with their claim concerning significant Mississippi educational disparities harming black schoolchildren. If it had been up to Trump judges Ho, Willett, Duncan, Oldham, and Wilson, however, that important claim would have been dismissed and the mothers and children would have no such opportunity.