Echoing a state appeals court’s ruling, a federal appellate panel says the right to vote doesn’t entitle Chicago voters to the right to vote for the members of the Chicago school board.

On April 10, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago delivered the latest blow to legal actions launched against the state of Illinois and city of Chicago over powers given by the law to Chicago’s mayor to appoint the members of the board overseeing the city’s public schools.

Pat Quinn
Pat Quinn

That ruling had come about two weeks since the Illinois First District Appellate Court on  March 29 upheld a Cook County judge’s decision to dismiss a state lawsuit brought by former Ill. Gov. Pat Quinn and a group of Chicago residents, challenging the state law granting the mayor of Chicago unchecked authority to appoint the members of the Chicago Board of Education, which they said violates their rights under the Illinois constitution.

A day before the state court’s opinion was issued, Seventh Circuit Judges Frank H. Easterbrook, Michael S. Kanne and Diane S. Sykes heard arguments on a similar complaint from the same plaintiffs on appeal from the federal courtroom of U.S. District Judge Elaine E. Bucklo. Easterbrook wrote the panel’s unanimous opinion.

In the opinion, Easterbrook said the Illinois law giving the Chicago mayor the sole power to appoint Chicago Public Schools board members took effect in 1995. Prior to that, the appointments required City Council approval. The complaint alleged the law violates the federal Voting Rights Act. As in the state action, joining Quinn as plaintiffs are Chicago residents, Irene Robinson, Antwain Miller, Marc Kaplan, Christopher Ball, Daniel Morales-Doyle and Jitu Brown, all parents or grandparents of CPS students.

Whereas the Cook County complaint dropped claims of racial discrimination after it was filed in 2016, the federal action maintained its assertion “that failure to elect the school board in Chicago has a disproportionate effect on minority voters,” per Easterbrook, as CPS is the largest public district in the state and also comprised of the greatest percentage of nonwhite voters.

 “The purpose of the 1995 Act was to limit the ability of minority race voters to determine how much of that property wealth can be taxed and used almost entirely for the education of minority race children and only a small fraction of white children,” the complaint said.

However, while section 2 of the Voting Rights Act protects people from any “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting or standard” abridging the right to vote, the Seventh Circuit panel said the Act “does not guarantee that any given public office be filled by election rather than appointment, a civil service system, or some other means.”

Further, Easterbrook wrote, “several courts have rejected contentions” to the idea an office must be filled by election. The most recent decision the panel cited was the 2002 U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion in Moore v. Detroit School Reform Board, “and no court since then has disagreed.” Whether an appointed board is good government, the panel said, is irrelevant as the VRA doesn’t speak to the question the complaint raised.

In addressing the racial discrimination argument, the panel said every CPS voter is treated equally because none get to vote on school board members.

“It is misleading to say that political processes in Chicago are not equally open to participation by persons of all races,” Easterbrook wrote. ”Every voter in Chicago exercises the same influence when voting for a candidate who has a particular position on education — as well as policing, zoning, the parks, and the many other issues any city must address. Every voter throughout Illinois influences education policy. Some do this by electing a school board, some by electing a mayor who appoints a board, but influence is there for everyone to wield.”

The panel negated the plaintiffs’ 14th Amendment allegations by referencing the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Sailors v. Board of Education, “which holds that appointing a school board is constitutionally permissible,” as well as the 1999 Seventh Circuit opinion in Hearne v. Board of Education, which specifically upholds the 1995 Illinois law in light of the carve-out for Chicago and which the Illinois First District Appellate Court cited in its March 29 ruling.

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

The Board of Education has been represented by the firm of Pugh Jones & Johnson, of Chicago.

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Organizations in this Story

Chicago Public Schools Cook County Circuit Court Despres Schwartz & Geoghegan Ltd. Illinois First District Appellate Court U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois

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