Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to act on Attorney General Lynn Fitch’s motion to pause a lawsuit filed on behalf of African American parents saying the state violated federal law by spending less on majority-Black schools than majority-white ones.

Will Bardwell, an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of Black Mississippi parents, said the ruling denying Fitch’s request “almost certainly means that the Supreme Court isn’t going to take the case, at least for now, which clears the way for us to move forward in district court.”

Colby Jordan, a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office, said of last week’s decision by the Supreme Court: “We are in the process of reviewing our options.”

Fitch was asking the nation’s highest court to halt any advancement of the lawsuit in district court while her office had time to file an appeal of a narrow ruling of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals saying the case could move forward. Samuel Alito, one of the Supreme Court’s more conservative justices, acting on behalf of the entire panel, rejected Fitch’s request last week.

What is at issue in the unique case is whether the state is in violation of the Mississippi Readmission Act of 1870 that was passed by the U.S. Congress after the Civil War. As a condition of readmission, the federal act, in part, prohibited Mississippi from making changes to its laws that lessened the guarantee of an equal or uniform school system. Bardwell said the language placed in the state Constitution recognizing the state’s commitment to public education has been watered down through the years, especially as state leaders strived at times in the state’s history to have separate school systems based on the students’ race.

Bardwell said the goal of the lawsuit is “to re-establish Mississippi’s obligation to maintaining a uniform school system and to hold the state accountable for not upholding that obligation.”

The lawsuit by the SLPC cited what it said were numerous examples where African American students still receive an inferior education in Mississippi. For instance, in the 2015-16 school year, of the 19 F-rated school districts, 13 had a Black enrollment of more than 95%, and all had enrollment of African Americans of at least 85%.

In its motion to dismiss the case, Fitch argued, “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 the state’s citizenry. And, of course there is always room for improvement in this area in the state of Mississippi. But the tactics utilized by the SPLC in this lawsuit are not, and could not be, the answer.”

All states have clauses in their constitutions establishing their public education commitment.

Mississippi’s 1868 Constitution states: “As the stability of a republican form of government depends mainly upon the intelligence and virtue of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature to encourage, by all suitable means, the promotion of intellectual, scientific, moral and agricultural improvement, by establishing a uniform system of free public schools, by taxation or otherwise, for all children between the ages of five and twenty-one years, and shall, as soon as practicable, establish schools of higher grade.”

The state’s current Constitution, enacted in 1890, weakened that commitment by among other things removing the word “uniform” and adding a new section, mandating separate schools for “children of the white and colored races.”

That language establishing separate education system based on race was not removed from the Constitution until 1978. Even with that removal, the lawsuit contends the state’s current constitutional commitment to public education is much weaker than it was in the 1868 Constitition when Mississippi was re-admitted to the Union.

U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate of the Southern District of Mississippi is scheduled to hear the case.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.