Bishop cites judge’s mixed decision in NJ school segregation case

October 9, 2023 | GNJ News

Bishop John Schol reported on October 7 good and bad news in a judicial decision related to a 2018 school desegregation lawsuit in which the Greater New Jersey (GNJ) Conference is a co-plaintiff. The suit, brought by families, school districts and organizations like GNJ, challenges the state to end the injustice of high rates of racial segregation in New Jersey schools.

State Superior Court Judge Robert Lougy’s decision October 6 on motions for *summary judgment, filed four years ago, says the state “failed to take sufficient steps to remedy that segregation.” But he also rejected the plaintiffs’ arguments that the state is legally required to fix the injustice because it is not proven to be prevalent statewide.

“The decision is very positive in some respects and disappointing in others,” wrote Bishop Schol to conference leaders.  “On the positive side, the court acknowledged that New Jersey schools are deeply segregated by race and that the state has a Constitutional obligation to address that segregation.  The court also found the students who attend segregated schools cannot receive a thorough and efficient education.

“Regrettably, the court did not order the State or the Department of Education to come up with a solution to the pervasive segregation that now exists,” he continued. “Instead, the court concluded that because plaintiffs did not adequately establish that the segregation exists throughout every part of the state, the court did not order the state to provide a remedy.”

Christian Estevez, president of the Latino Action Network, the lead plaintiff in the school desegregation suit, said that integration would lead to a more progressive society at a rally outside the Trenton Justice Complex to integrate N.J. schools on March 31, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A group of students, school districts, and advocates sued the state, the state board of education, and the acting education commissioner in May 2018, saying that the policy requiring students to attend schools where they live violated their student rights. According to the state’s constitution, “No person shall be … segregated in the … public schools, because of religious principles, race, color, ancestry or national origin.”

At issue before Judge Lougy was whether to dismiss the case or rule for the plaintiffs and require a trial on the issue of what the remedy for school desegregation should be. In Friday’s ruling, he noted that segregated schools were not an issue statewide but that the state’s stance “rings of an ‘attitude of helplessness in the face of what [is] perceived to be inevitable.’

“A decreasing number of white students in public schools may present challenges, but those challenges only emphasize, not diminish, ‘the obligation and power of education officials to remediate racial imbalance,’” he wrote, quoting from a lower court decision.

Lawrence Lustberg, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said he and colleagues are reviewing the opinion, which he said appears to acknowledge “New Jersey’s disgraceful history of school segregation.”

“Our lawyers are looking at our next steps,” Bishop Schol concluded in his message.

“While this is a disappointment, it is ONLY a decision on motions to dismiss, and we won some of them,” wrote attorney and GNJ’s Conference Chancellor Lynn Caterson in a follow-up email. “The case is still before the court, and the judge has telegraphed what he needs to hear at trial. There is a lot of a positive here.”

(*Note: a summary judgment is a legal decision entered summarily by a court for one party and against another party, without a full trial.)

In 2018 Bishop Schol and GNJ Conference Leaders joined an historic legal suit to desegregate education in New Jersey, approved by the Annual Conference.


Latino Action Network press release (Oct 7)

Judge Rejects State’s Effort to Avoid Responsibility for Racially Segregated Schools

On Friday, in a highly anticipated ruling in a statewide school desegregation case, New Jersey Superior Court judge Robert Lougy rejected the argument by lawyers representing the state of New Jersey that the state cannot be held liable for persistent racial segregation in its public schools. The pre-trial ruling comes in the case, Latino Action Network v. State (LAN), filed in 2018 on behalf of plaintiffs Latino Action Network, the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, Latino Coalition, the Urban League of Essex County, the United Methodist Church of Greater New Jersey and nine students.

“The court agreed with us on two essential points,” said attorney Lawrence Lustberg. “One, New Jersey’s schools are deeply segregated by race, and two, the state has a constitutional obligation to address this urgent problem.” He added that the court rejected most of the state’s defenses and provides a clear path forward for plaintiffs to obtain a remedy on their core legal claims that the state has violated the rights of students to equal protection, attend desegregated schools, and receive a thorough and efficient education under the state’s constitution.

“We are closely analyzing the opinion and will determine next steps in the case, including pursuing future trial or appeals, discussions with the state, after discussion with the clients and stakeholders involved in the case,” stated Michael Stein, co-counsel for plaintiffs.

Gary Stein, former New Jersey Supreme Court justice who participated in many of the Court’s school funding decisions and who serves as chair of the New Jersey Coalition for Diverse and Inclusive Schools, emphasized the importance of the trial court’s conclusion that “50 years of funding litigation has done little to eliminate de facto segregation” and that there is no material dispute in the case that many school districts in New Jersey are severely segregated. But Stein also noted that the court could and should have acted more forcefully.

“The court could have gone further and issued specific findings on behalf of plaintiffs that required the state to come up with a remedy. The opinion is a reminder that embarrassing racial segregation in New Jersey schools has existed for far too long, and that New Jersey’s courts must act with a much greater sense of urgency to vindicate the rights of all our schoolchildren.”

Robert Kim, executive director of Education Law Center, recognized the importance of the case to students in New Jersey and nationwide. “Nearly 70 years after Brown v. Board, schools in New Jersey and across the nation remain deeply segregated by race. This deprives them of the opportunity to learn in a diverse learning environment, which is critical not only for their development and education but for our democracy as a whole.”

For press inquiries, please contact Lawrence Lustberg at LLustberg@gibbonslaw.com.

Notable excerpts from the court’s opinion:

“Plaintiffs allege with sufficient specificity that Defendants intentionally failed to exercise their constitutional obligations and authorities to remedy segregation. The problems of racially isolated districts persist, and Plaintiffs adequately allege that Defendants . . . have failed to take sufficient steps to remedy that segregation.”  Page 68

“The Court finds that Defendants’ discussion of demographic trends among public school children in New Jersey does not , without more, constitute a defense to Plaintiffs’ constitutional claim. The Court agrees with Plaintiffs that Defendants argument rings of an “attitude of helplessness in the face of what [is] perceived to be inevitable.” Page 59

“That Plaintiffs have not established statewide infirmity does not diminish that they have demonstrated marked and persistent racial imbalance in numerous school districts across the State that Defendants’ actions, policies, programs, and inaction have failed to remedy.” Page 54

“Plaintiffs maintain that New Jersey’s schools are tragically – and embarrassingly – among the most segregated in the nation. That alleged condition, along with our Court’s prohibition of de facto segregation, makes New Jersey a logical choice for such historic claims.” Page 7

“Defendant’s application fails on both legal and factual grounds: their legal arguments in support of summary judgment are ultimately unpersuasive, and their own expert acknowledges that six percent of schools in the State are racially isolated, where a single race or ethnicity makes up 90% or more of a student body . . . while Plaintiffs have not demonstrated that the entire system is constitutionally repugnant, that shortcoming may be a question of scale, and Defendants fail to prove that they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Page 39

“Defendants’ factual and legal criticisms of Plaintiffs’ theory are neither persuasive nor robust and do not persuade this Court that Plaintiffs’ claims are flawed.” Page 59

“[H]ome rule and neighborhood schools are not set in stone. They remain viable as long as they serve public policy; to the extent that they protect and prolong racial segregation, they are anathema to public policy. As the Court has further emphasized, home rule and neighborhood schools impose no obstacle to and do not dilute or diminish the Commissioner’s exercise of her obligation to fight segregation in public schools.” Page 72

On the NJ Supreme Court’s long history of civil rights cases affirming the state’s duty to fulfill its constitutional obligations: “Nothing in the intervening fifty-years has diminished either Defendants’ power or responsibility.” Page 57