State fights for dismissal of SPLC lawsuit

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Kate Royals/Mississippi Today

Indigo Williams, the mother of a 1st grader at Raines Elementary, speaks at a May press conference about the run-down conditions and lack of opportunities at her child’s school.

The state is arguing that a federal court should dismiss a lawsuit recently filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center charging that the state has failed to follow the conditions under the 1869 Readmission Act.

According to filings by lawyers with Attorney General Jim Hood’s office, the lawsuit should be dismissed because the basic issue raised by the SPLC is not a legal but rather a political one and violates the statute of limitations and the Eleventh Amendment, among other reasons.

The Eleventh Amendment deals with each state’s sovereign immunity and prohibits the federal courts from hearing certain lawsuits against states.

The Readmission Act, passed by Congress, spelled out the conditions under which Mississippi could return to the United States after secession, including that “the constitution of Mississippi shall never be so amended or changed as to deprive any citizen or class of citizens of the United States of the school rights and privileges secured by the constitution of said State.”

However, a new Mississippi constitution in 1890 and subsequent amendments to the constitution until 1987 violated that condition, the SPLC claims. As a result, the condition and performance of majority black schools in the state is subpar to white schools.

The lawsuit points out that 13 of the state’s 19 F-rated school districts are more than 95 percent African American. All 19 have enrollments of at least 80 percent African American students.

But the state claims the lawsuit is misled in its legal strategy.

“At the end of the day, it should go without saying that education is of the utmost importance to all of the State Defendants and this State’s citizenry … But the tactics utilized by the SPLC in this lawsuit are not, and could not be, the answer,” the state writes in its motion to dismiss.

“Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more perverse request for intervention by the federal judiciary, as the relief requested would serve to hold captive not only a sovereign state’s constitution, but also profound notions of federalism,” the motion continues.

The SPLC fired back in its own filing, arguing that each of the state’s points did not apply and that this is indeed an issue to be decided by the federal courts.

“Rather than defend the system, the State conjures a variety of arguments for why this Court supposedly lacks the power to do anything about it,” the SPLC’s response states.

“In any event, the Plaintiffs’ claims present the type of legal issue that courts address every day: the Plaintiffs allege that the current version of the Mississippi Constitution violates the Readmission Act because it secures fewer rights than the 1868 Mississippi Constitution,” it continued.

The SPLC filing also maintains that the state’s argument regarding statute of limitations is inapplicable as the plaintiffs in the lawsuit could not have made the complaint before their children were enrolled in school. The SPLC filed the lawsuit on behalf of four mothers with children at Raines Elementary School in Jackson and Webster Elementary in Yazoo City. Both the Jackson Public School District and the Yazoo City Municipal School District are rated “F” by the Mississippi Department of Education.

The SPLC is asking for a declaratory judgment finding that the education clause in the state constitution violates the Readmission Act and for an award of attorney’s cost and fees.

The defendants are Gov. Phil Bryant, Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright and the State Board of Education.

U.S. District Court Judge William H. Barbour has not ruled on the state’s motion for dismissal.