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School Board case used in Supreme Court ruling

This photo was taken on the day members of the Bossier Parish School Board were present for a Supreme Court ruling in 2000. Pictured left to right: Ken Kruithof, Marguerite Hudson, Jane Smith, and Henry Burns.

Members present for original case look back

The U.S. Supreme Court recently cited a case won by the Bossier Parish School Board in an opinion that scrapped much of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In Reno vs. Bossier Parish School Board, the NAACP and the U.S. Department of Justice argued that there were no minority districts in bossier parish, but the school board argued that it would have to gerrymander districts to get a minority district. and there were already three black members of the board, elected by white majority districts.

Then Bossier Superintendent of Schools, Jane Smith, said the NAACP filed the suit to keep the BPSB from getting the preclearance needed to have an election.

Smith also said the board had done its due diligence and was in no way discriminatory.

That lawsuit eventually turned into a suit from the Department of Justice and Attorney General Janet Reno.

The case was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1999 and Bossier Parish School Board won.

The following are recollections from two of the school board members present for the arguments and ruling:

Jane Smith, superintendent at the time

Thoughts on case: When I became superintendent, the school board had been trying to get preclearance for school board election and couldn’t get clearance from a three judge panel. So what you had where members serving five years on four-year term. Members felt they served state guidelines, but because the suit was filed we couldn’t get an election.

Thoughts on initial suit: Louisiana had seceded from the Union (as part of the Civil War), that was how (the government) targeted the states that got preclearance. Even though it had been 100 years. We hadn’t forgotten the past but we had moved beyond the practices that brought about the voting right act. We were the poster child of getting minorities elected to our board. There was no way to draw a minority district without gerrymandering and crossing precinct rights which was a violation of state law.

Reaction when the DOJ and Att. General became involved: We filed suit against Janet Reno, which is how she (and the DOJ) got involved. We felt we had done what we were supposed to do and still couldn’t get preclearance. We hired a Washington-based attorney, Michael Carvin, to argue our case before the Supreme Court because your representation needs to be an expert and get all the points across quickly and accurately.

Thoughts as you stood before the Supreme Court: It’s an overwhelming experience because to this day, most people never enter that chamber and we were able to enter and sit because we were the case. That in itself was historical and very impressive to me.

Feeling after arguing your point: We knew it was a monumental task to win in Janet Reno’s backyard, so to speak, but we felt like we had a good argument.

Reaction to decision: Even though we had to pay for our attorneys, we felt vindicated in what we were saying and what the board had been saying all along. We felt good about the case. We had no idea we would win, but we felt and we felt like we should win.

Henry Burns, 15-year school board member

Thoughts on case: Many Southern States have been under a decent decree for a great number of years. This was related to the Civil War in order to safeguard minority rights. Voting districts required Justice approval to insure that lines were not drawn to eliminate minority representation on elected boards, commissions or legislative bodies.

In Bossier Parish, the voting district lines for the Bossier Parish School Board mirrored that of the Police Jury’s, but their lines were nor challenged. It seemed a little unusual and did seem to me to stand up to strict scrutiny of the decent decree with no violations being present.

Thoughts on initial suit: The lawsuit progressed through the system and started to receive national attention. The U.S. Attorney General, Janet Reno joined in support of the lawsuit which was initiated by the Local NAACP. This really put a spotlight on the lawsuit, and eventually the case was heard in 1996 by the U..S. Supreme Court.

This very expensive and lengthy case caught the attention of many American citizens that showed support on both sides of the issue. The cost to the Bossier Parish System was mitigated by a great number of “Pro-Bono” attorney’s from around the country that felt like the BPSB had fully complied with the decent decree.

Reaction when the DOJ and Att. General became involved: Attorneys actually represented us before the U.S. Supreme Court, and Mrs. Smith, along with Mr. Kruithof, Ms. Hudson and myself, were there in defense and available for consultation and or testimony.

Thoughts as you stood before the Supreme Court: Wow! Just to be in that court and getting to be a part of history was overwhelming. I felt confident that we had done our due diligence and prayed that the Judges would rule in our favor.

Feeling after arguing your point: There was passion and energy from both sides of the case as it was argued. But Justice Scalia mentioned that the lawsuit’s intention was to insure that one minority would be represented on the Bossier Parish School Board. There were 12 school board districts and each was populated by a majority of white citizens. At that time there were already three African American citizens that had been elected from those majority white districts.

Justice Scalia said with some disbelief, “but currently you have three African American citizens elected and serving on the Bossier Parish School Board who have been elected from the majority white districts, is that too many?” To me that signaled a chance that the Supreme Court might just rule in our favor!

Reaction to decision: At the time of the rendering of the decision, there was great joy and relief. We had won! Now maybe, we could put some of the injustices of the past behind us and move forward into the future. Not forgetting the past, but resolving to always honor the rights of all citizens and putting our focus and energy into educating all of our children.

Attaining the “American Dream” should be within everyone’s reach regardless of race, creed or nationality.

To view a fact sheet on Reno v. Bossier, visit www.cir-usa.org/ reno_v_bossier_fact_sheet.html

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Sean Green is managing editor of the Bossier Press-Tribune.