ATLANTA, BENTON HARBOR, Mich. and DAYTON, Ohio (April 17, 2002) – On April 4, 2002, Judge Douglas Hillman of the Western District of Michigan granted the State of Michigan's motion for unitary status in the 35 year-old Benton Harbor school desegregation case, resulting in a phase-out of extraordinary court-ordered state payments for that school district.
Over the years, the State of Michigan has paid-out more than $116 million to the Benton Harbor school district in connection with the case. The Judge's ruling phases out the previous court-ordered payments by the State and will eventually free the State from any further commitments.
Sutherland Asbill & Brennan attorneys John Munich, Al Lindseth and Rocco Testani, working with co-counsel from the Michigan Attorney General's office, successfully argued that the State of Michigan had fully complied in good faith with the court's past orders and had eliminated all remaining effects of past segregation in the district to the extent practicable.
A major issue in the case involved an achievement disparity between predominantly minority students in the Benton Harbor school district and students in the rest of the State. The court accepted the State's evidence that such a disparity was unrelated to past segregation in the district, and instead due to social forces such as poverty.
"I accept [the State's evidence] that after adjusting for [socioeconomic] factors and first grade test scores, no statistically significant gap exists between the performance of white and minority students in the Benton Harbor schools. In other words, no "achievement gap" exists ... that is attributable to the race of the students," wrote Judge Hillman in his 50-page decision.
Judge Hillman's decision effectively ends the case, which originated with a lawsuit filed against the school district in 1967 by the parent of a student and the NAACP, claiming the district was discriminating against and segregating black students. The recent decision rules that the Benton Harbor Area School District no longer has to operate under a federal court's supervision, which was required by Judge Hillman in his 1981 order to desegregate Benton Harbor, Eau Claire and Coloma schools
The ruling to end the desegregation order affecting the Benton Harbor school district and the State is consistent with the national trend and foreshadows similar results in other cases currently being tried across the nation.
Indeed, in a similar case for the State of Ohio in which the Sutherland attorneys were also involved, a federal judge on April 15, 2002 approved a settlement of the Dayton, Ohio school desegregation case (Goodwine v. Taft, formerly known as Brinkman v. Gilligan). As part of the settlement, the court declared the school district unitary and dismissed the 30 year-old case against both the School District and the State of Ohio, which had provided significant funding for the desegregation plan over the years.
Sutherland attorneys John Munich, Al Lindseth and Rocco Testani are available for comment about both cases and the others in the country like it.
To arrange interviews with the attorneys, please contact Duffy Astriab of Sutherland Asbill & Brennan at 404.853.8696.