Judge rejects ex-Gov. Quinn's lawsuit challenging power of Chicago mayor to appoint school board

By Jonathan Bilyk | Feb 14, 2017

Saying nothing in federal law entitles Chicago residents to a right to an elected school board, a federal judge has tossed a lawsuit from a group of plaintiffs, including parents of Chicago Public Schools students and former Ill. Gov. Pat Quinn, who had asked the court to side with their contentions that a state law granting the mayor of Chicago the power to appoint members of the Chicago Board of Education was discriminatory and violated their voting rights.

On Monday, Feb. 13, U.S. District Judge Elaine E. Bucklo granted the request of the Chicago Board of Education and others named as a defendants to dismiss the federal court action, and, in the process, to deny as moot the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction against the Chicago schools board.

The federal court action had been filed Oct. 5, 2016, by a group of six named plaintiffs, identified as Irene Robinson, Antwain Miller, Marc Kaplan, Christopher Ball, Daniel Morales-Doyle and Jitu Brown, who said they were parents and grandparents of CPS students. Some of these plaintiffs were affiliated with CPS’ Local School Councils.

Specifically, the federal complaint asserted the mayor’s appointment powers violate the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, as CPS stands as the only school district in Illinois in which voters lack the power to elect their own district board. And they further claimed the direct appointment provisions violate the federal Voting Rights Act by illegally suppressing the rights of African Americans and Hispanics to elect representatives to the school board, limiting “the ability of minority race voters to determine how much of (the city’s) property wealth can be taxed and used almost entirely for the education of minority race children and only a small fraction of white children.”

Former Ill. Gov. Pat Quinn  

They asserted the mayoral appointment powers were enacted in 1995 as a response by white property owners in the city to a new political reality in the wake of the election of former Mayor Harold Washington, the city’s first and only elected black mayor.

The plaintiffs further claimed the mayoral appointment powers have not only not produced a schools board that has made public education in Chicago any better, or improved the district’s finances, but actually made the situation worse.

The federal action had also been accompanied by a similar lawsuit filed by the same plaintiffs in Cook County Circuit Court, alleging the state law also violates provisions of the Illinois state constitution.

Quinn also joined his name to the lawsuits.

In response to the lawsuit, the Chicago Board asked the judge to dismiss the federal lawsuit, claiming the plaintiffs’ challenge to the law was invalid.

In her opinion and order, Bucklo sided with the CPS board.

Noting the plaintiffs’ claims are “not novel” and “cover well-trodden ground” in many other previous cases, Bucklo said in all cases courts have upheld the power of the state, under the U.S. Constitution and federal law, to grant special powers to the mayors of cities with large urban school districts to appoint school board members.

Legal precedent, the judge said, “affirmatively establishes the rule … that the one-person, one-vote principle applies to local elections. But it decidedly does not stand for the proposition that all local government officers must be elected, nor does it suggest that if a state authorizes elections for a particular office in some jurisdictions, it must do so in all of them.”

“Plaintiffs have no fundamental right to vote in school board elections as a matter of law, and the fact that residents of other Illinois jurisdictions have the privilege of voting in such elections in their districts does not confer such a right upon residents of Chicago,” Bucklo added.

The judge further brushed aside arguments the 1995 state law was a racially motivated, discriminatory response from a “hostile General Assembly” to African American Chicago residents becoming “independent of white political control while Harold Washington was mayor, and just after a Democratic-controlled General Assembly in 1988 had given more control to African American voters through LSCs.”

“It bears emphasizing that, as plaintiffs concede, Chicago’s school board has never been elected,” the judge wrote. “Their argument that the legislature enacted a ‘switch to an even less democratic’ process with the purpose of discriminating against African Americans is simply too speculative to support their claims.”

And the judge said she did not believe the plaintiffs had made their case that the mayor had used the state law to appoint a school board to protect property in the city from taxation for public schools, which serve large numbers of racial minority students.

“… Plaintiffs do not allege that the Board has declined to use its taxing authority to the fullest, and they offer no factual basis from which to infer that the appointive process … was designed to minimize the property tax exposure of Chicago’s white residents or to deprive minority children of adequately funded schools,” Bucklo wrote. “Indeed … the Board’s taxing authority in this respect is subject to a statutory cap, which applies regardless of whether the Board is elected or appointed.”

According to Cook County court records, the plaintiffs’ state court action against the Chicago Board of Education remains pending. The Chicago Board has similarly asked the court to dismiss that action, as well.

Plaintiffs are represented in the action by the firm of Despres Schwartz & Geoghegan, of Chicago.

The Chicago Board of Education was defended by the firm of Pugh, Jones & Johnson, of Chicago.

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Organizations in this Story

Chicago Board of Education City of Chicago Despres Schwartz & Geoghegan Ltd. Illinois General Assembly Pugh, Jones & Johnson, PC. U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois

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