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VOL. 127 | NO. 135 | Thursday, July 12, 2012

Judge Mays to Hear Schools Arguments

By Bill Dries

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When U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee Judge Hardy Mays gets to the motion to stop the municipal school districts referendums Thursday, July 12, he should have a thicker file and something close to 20 attorneys on his side of the bar.

Motions and memoranda from the 15 parties in the case, the newest being the Shelby County Election Commission, were due in the federal court clerk’s office by 5 p.m. Wednesday.

In short order at Monday’s status conference, Mays continued his courtroom custom of having only one attorney speak for each side even when several might represent the same client. Much of the response on the direction of Thursday’s hearing came from Leo Bearman, attorney for the Shelby County Commission; Kevin Steiling, attorney for the state of Tennessee; and Tom Cates, attorney for the suburban municipalities.

Mays has made no guarantees there will be a decision Thursday on the validity of the move to the ballot in the push for municipal school districts. But he told the attorneys there is more of a likelihood of a ruling on the two issues he will consider than on the third issue raised by the Shelby County Commission in its petition to stop the referendums.

Mays will hear from all sides on whether the state laws that set the procedure for forming municipal school districts violate the Tennessee Constitution by applying only to Shelby County. County Commissioners cite two sections of the state Constitution they believe the laws violate. Leaders of the six suburban towns and cities dispute that the laws apply only to Shelby County.

Mays will not only weigh the wording of the statutes and the state Constitution, he will also consider other cases that have touched on similar issues. And from discussions in court Monday, Mays has indicated he will probably examine the intent of legislators during their discussions and debate before the statutes governing municipal school districts were passed in 2011 and earlier this year.

The third issue is an allegation that the move to municipal schools districts is partially motivated by a desire to racially segregate local schools in violation of the equal protection part of the U.S. Constitution.

Mays and the attorneys all agreed Monday that trying the federal issue would take too much time if the goal is to resolve the question of holding the referendums before early voting begins Friday. And so far, all sides expressing an opinion in open court, have said they would rather resolve the matter before early voting than once it begins.

Mays didn’t say he would rule for or against a motion to stop an election in progress – or any other motion – but he indicated attorneys advocating that would have to make a powerful case for that to happen. And he said the burden to stop the referendums before they begin will already be high.

Before Mays gets to the state constitutional issues Thursday, he will hear several other matters that include whether the County Commission violated the state open meetings law the day before the motion was filed by meeting with attorneys in private.

Commissioners in the conference have said they took no vote there on filing the motion and did not deliberate.

There also probably will be some questions about whether some of the parties have standing to be involved in this specific part of the case. It began in February 2011 as an attempt to stop the consolidation of Shelby County’s two public school systems and the appointment by the Shelby County Commission of members to a single countywide school board for those two systems leading up to the merger.

There weren’t any challenges in court Monday to the court’s jurisdiction to hear the matters that involve state law and the intent of state legislators even though Mays said several times that he had some questions about that.

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