Thursday, March 12, 2009

Form, Function & Aesop

Lynn still has a race-based school assignment policy. Some parents filed suit against Lynn several years back and the First Circuit, en banc, upheld the policy in 2005. The parents appealed to the Supreme Court. The Court denied certiorari. And that was that.

In 2007, however, the Supreme Court struck down raced-based public school assignments in Seattle and Louisville "that bore a distinct resemblance to" Lynn's policy in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School Dist. No. 1. Justice Thomas explicitly called out the First Circuit in his concurring opinion. He said that its decision on the Lynn case was "inimical to the Constitution."

So the parents sought to reopen their case. The trial court denied their request. Today, in Comfort v. Lynn School Committee, No. 08-1735, the First Circuit affirmed the trial court. The Court's reasoning, in short, is that when the Supreme Court denied review of the Lynn case in 2005, it was over. The Court concludes with a footnote that chides the plaintiffs and says all they have to do is file a new suit challenging the assignment policy. "With that option open but unutilized," writes Judge Selya, "the plaintiffs claims of inequity ring hollow."

This is entirely correct from a technical perspective. But is it really fair? Is the First Circuit putting form over function? Would it be less fair if the "inimical" comment had come in the Supreme Court's majority opinion and not a concurrence by Justice Thomas? And might there be an implicit recognition here by the First Circuit that just because the Supreme Court struck down similar policies in Seattle and Louisville, that doesn't mean the Lynn approach is unconstitutional? Or is it just that our commitment to the common law -- as in The Common Law -- will inevitably on occasion cause us to furrow our collective brow?

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